Reading XENA: The Topps Series (Post III 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 continuing 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.)

In this entry, we’re looking at two Topps trilogies that ran from December 1997 to April 1998…

 

13) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Dragon’s Teeth (I)” (December 1997)

Xena protects Oedipus and finds herself fighting the Dragon’s Teeth Warriors.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “A Necessary Evil” and “The Furies”

This three-part narrative, written by Roy Thomas (who, as mentioned above, contributed the story for a Season One episode), is like many of the author’s previous efforts in that it combines a working knowledge of the characters and their voices with an evident passion for Greek mythology. The subject of this plot includes Oedipus, Creon, and Antigone — all classic mythical characters who would actually appear in a middle-of-the-road sixth season episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (produced in the summer of 1999) — and involves the popular legend of Thebes’ founding at the hands of Cadmus and the warriors (the Spartoi) that sprung from the teeth of the dragon he slew. All of that is well-applied and appreciated here — the legends are inherently cool and universe-building, and the depictions of the main characters (Xena and Gabrielle) are congruous with how they’re written in the series.

However, as is usually the case in these comics, the emotional underpinnings of the characters are not as evident; Topps’ story concerns — partly pronounced because these narratives cannot change or evolve the characters (like stories on the series are expected to do) — take precedence. However, because we expect less of the comics as a result of the medium’s own limitations, we’re more forgiving about the relationship between character and plot. Accordingly, my “Chakrams” score is dependent more on its viability for the series; see below…

 

14) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Dragon’s Teeth (II)” (January 1998)

Xena prepares to defend Thebes from the King’s son and the dreaded Dragon’s Teeth Warriors.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “A Necessary Evil” and “The Furies”

Part II of “The Dragon’s Teeth” continues the narrative but doesn’t have as much story as Part I (because that debut installment had a lot of exposition to get out of the way — sometimes rather inartfully). There are really only two new narrative beats introduced here — the establishment of 1) Echion as the Dragon’s Teeth Warrior that Xena has captured, and with whom this story tries to craft somewhat of a flirtation for her (unsuccessfully — these one-episode love interests seldom work, even on the series itself) and 2) another mythical beast that the villain adds to his arsenal as he plans his attack on Thebes… With the exception of the insubstantial love interest angle, Part II does as well as Part I narratively and that’s why it’s earned the same “Chakram” score; the positives above still apply — cool story, great voices.

What keeps the entire trilogy from earning above the “adequate” level of 5/10 is the aforementioned lack of character development — yes, we know not to expect it, but… — it indeed hampers the overall narrative’s usability. Forget that Oedipus, Antigone, et al. eventually appeared on Hercules (I’d argue that their human drama made them more fitting for Xena than Herc, anyway); the reason this one’s unusable, as is, is that Xena’s personal stake in the adventure is relatively light (and the half-baked attraction to Echion doesn’t add one). To make this a usable Xena story, she’d have to have more history with Oedipus or Thebes. Then maybe I’d care about what happens and could excuse all the cumbersome plot points…

 

15) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Dragon’s Teeth (III) – The Seven Against Thebes” (February 1998)

Xena defends Thebes from the King’s son and the dreaded Dragon’s Teeth Warriors.

Chakrams: 4/10      T/L: Between “A Necessary Evil” and “The Furies”

The final part of this trilogy is my least favorite. As is often true with these three-parters, much of the last book concerns the fourth act fight and the expected resolution, meaning that it’s mostly action (and, as in most of these comic books, it’s mythical, mystical, and magical — with not as much humanity as found in an actual Xena entry), and little character. That’s why I’ve given it a reduced score… Naturally, Oedipus dies at the end — which would contradict the events of Hercules in Season Six, but again we forgive — yet, as discussed above, that’s not why I doubt the viability of this narrative. For that, we look, again, to character; there’s not enough Xena here in this text (she talks right and fights right, but she’s not really driving things), and it’s for this reason that I’m not enthused over the story as a possible Xena contender

However, if I were to find a place to put it in the Timeline, I’ve decided that it would go (ignoring, once again, Hercules) sometime in the latter half of Season Two — before Three. My reasoning is thus — Gabrielle fights pretty well, and I therefore think it has to come after she becomes an Amazon Queen, as her battle with Velasca really escalated her capabilities. So, this comes after Xena and Gabrielle fought Velasca in “A Necessary Evil.” Also, there’s mention of Ares with regard to the myth of the Dragon’s Teeth, and given how much more he started to be used on Xena in Season Three, I believe that any narrative that mentioned him in such a manner would also have to include him. Because it doesn’t, it best belongs in Season Two.

 

16) “Xena: Warrior Princess Vs. Callisto (I)” (February 1998)

Callisto plans a surprise for Xena during Pandora and Gregor’s wedding.

Chakrams: 2.5/10      T/L: Between “Gabrielle’s Hope” and “Maternal Instincts”

Callisto makes her comics debut in the first part of this trilogy scripted by Roy Thomas (who, again, had actually gotten to work on the TV series). As has been the trend, the narrative makes a valiant effort to combine Greek mythology with the history of the show, indicating its knowledge of the series via references to past episodes. The narrative for this “Callisto” trio calls into play a variety of mythological sources — Pandora’s Box, Thanatos (death), the Hydra and Hercules’ bout with it, Cassandra the seer, and the fall of Troy — along with narratives from the series, including Xena and Gabrielle’s history with Pandora, King Gregor, and Gabriel (in “Cradle Of Hope”), their past with Hades, their visit to Troy in Season One (for the story credited to Thomas), and of course, the Warrior Princess’ evil legacy and the influence this had on Callisto. There’s also, curiously, a mention of Gabrielle’s demon daughter…

Unfortunately, all these narrative threads make it hard to pinpoint exactly where this story would fit, if it were to be used at all (see below). The book opens by stating that Gabriel is over six months old… and then later says it’s been a few years since the whole Pandora/Gregor story. (Their wedding is used as the backdrop of this narrative.) I’m opting to agree with the latter determination — this must be about two years later because not only is there an aforementioned “Gabrielle’s Hope” reference, but Callisto is already a goddess. So this has to be Season Three — and before “Maternal Instincts,” when Callisto was bored of her godhood and Xena let her grief over Solan’s death fuel her efforts against the self-proclaimed “Warrior Queen”… So, this would come between those two Hope appearances. More below…

 

17) “Xena: Warrior Princess Vs. Callisto (II) – Trial By Torment” (March 1998)

Callisto torments Xena as they prepare for an epic showdown.

Chakrams: 2.5/10      T/L: Between “Gabrielle’s Hope” and “Maternal Instincts”

Okay, so we’ve pinpointed the most likely date that this trilogy could fall. But, of course, even aside from the contradictions in setting up its own continuity, the book can’t really be slotted into the events of the show, for if Callisto has presumably escaped from the lava pit (as she’s now a goddess and there’s indeed a mention of Velasca), she’d have to go back in there before Hope frees her in “Maternal Instincts.” For this reason, a story of this nature would requite a lot of redeveloping in order to even be considered for the series… Additionally, the character of Cassandra is presumably the same mythical figure that Hercules encountered at the end of his show’s third season entry, “Atlantis”… but these two don’t seem like the same woman at all.

Because of these continuity problems, I’ve decided to place all three parts of the Callisto trilogy at a lower “Chakram” score than usual — for the natural place where this story would fit (in the second quadrant of Season Three) already contradicts what had previously been established by Renaissance Pictures and their two shows. Not even at the acceptable 5/10 baseline that the majority of Roy Thomas’ prior efforts have been able to hit, this story simply couldn’t have been used… and that’s a shame, for you can tell that it really tries to collaborate with the canon of the series — concocting a story that not only uses one of Xena’s greatest enemies, but also calls back upon occasionally mentioned characters from a memorable first season outing as a means of rooting the narrative more firmly within the show’s actual universe. But this speaks to an inherent problem with these comics — they can’t really alter the characters or the Timeline, and are forced to work within it. And as the series became more serialized during its third season, there was practically no way the comics could “keep up.”

 

18) “Xena: Warrior Princess Vs. Callisto (III) – Death Takes Five” (April 1998)

Gabrielle and Cassandra race to get back to help Xena defeat Callisto.

Chakrams: 2.5/10      T/L: Between “Gabrielle’s Hope” and “Maternal Instincts”

So, with all the above settled — the fact that this story couldn’t really work for the show (which is the primary reason that I’ve rated it so low) — I want to address the quality of the comic itself. That is, how does it play within the standards established by the rest of the Topps run? Well, I’m sorry to say that this is one of the weakest yet. While all of these comic books are consumed by action as a result of their inability to do a lot with character, this one carries the fighting on a little too long, especially in Parts II and III, the former of which continues a labored fight scene (started at the end of the first issue) with Xena and the hydra, which Callisto has commanded and then, in a strange bout of unmotivated magic, is able to have switch bodies with Xena. It’s all a little too supernatural and character-starved to be as enjoyable as other otherwise action-packed books. (The irony of all this is that the story still tries to set this up by being more specific to the series and these characters.)

Worse, Roy Thomas’ script surprisingly doesn’t get the characters’ voices right. Xena, Gabrielle, and Callisto all feel strained. This is particularly odd given that Thomas had not only worked on the series, but also exhibited his strong command of the Warrior Princess’ and Battling Bard’s intonations in his prior efforts — even as recently as the “The Dragon’s Teeth.” Due to the script, and the story issues (some of which, to be fair, are endemic of the medium and not the fault of these writers), this is my least favorite of the Topps stories yet…

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena article in November! Also, tune in on Tuesday for more of the best episodes from NewsRadio!

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