Reading XENA: The Topps Series (Post II 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 the first official series by Topps — Issues #1, #2, and #0 — and the Joxer trilogy. Also, the B-story of the first series, “The Theft Of The Young Lovelies” is discussed at the end as one collective narrative.

 

07) Xena: Warrior Princess #1 – “Revenge Of The Gorgons”  (August 1997)

The remaining Gorgons attack a festival thrown by King Perseus.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “For Him The Bell Tolls” and “A Comedy Of Eros”

Topps launches the first official Xena series with an all-star line-up of supporting players, which, aside from Xena and Gabrielle, include Joxer, Salmoneus, and even Iolaus and Hercules (the latter of whom pops in for a cameo appearance before departing ahead of the main dramatic battle). With lots of mythological heroes and beasts — Perseus, Gorgons, giants — and casual references to the geography of Ancient Greece, Thomas’ script shows a clear understanding of the universe that both Hercules and Xena are said to inhabit. Additionally, references to past events on both series once again reiterate just how much of a “close watch” the Topps folks were keeping on the fictional universe that Tapert and company had created. This awareness is matched by a pretty accurate representation of the regulars’ voices.

However, the Gorgon angle is something that seems like it would make more sense on the “monster of the week” years of Hercules (like Season Two), and to that point, while neither Herc nor Xena ever dealt with Gorgons — aside from the odd mention — Hercules has fought a beast that turns people to stone before (in “The Wrong Path”). As a result, I’m not sure this is a story that either series would have employed. Furthermore, Renaissance wouldn’t pay to have cast members from both series appear all at once — and if they did, it wouldn’t be on Xena (which became the more popular show and therefore, the studio felt, it didn’t need visits from Herc/Iolaus). Nevertheless, because the voices are on-point, this is a decent outing. More below…

 

08) Xena: Warrior Princess #2 – “The Plant Of Never-Death” (September 1997)

To save Gabrielle, Xena travels with Gilgamesh to find the plant of Never-Death.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “For Him The Bell Tolls” and “A Comedy Of Eros”

Even though Gabrielle isn’t included, the Xena/Gilgamesh story is well-plotted and engaging, despite being telegraphed too predictably by the scripting. Continuing where the last edition left off, Xena travels with the mysteriously sinister Gilgamesh to find a plant that’ll save Gabrielle, who not only has been turned to stone (and will go back to flesh in a few days), but has been turned to stone just as a spear as impaled her. Joxer tags along as the trio goes to Mesopotamia to find the special plant, which, in a(n unsurprising) turn, Gilgamesh wants to use to become immortal himself — even if he has to kill Xena to do it. Fortunately, she makes the former hero come to his senses (so he’s resolved to live out his final days in peace) and is able to get the shrubbery back in time to save Gabrielle, right as she turns back into a human.

Looking at both Xena and Herc broadly, the depiction of Gilgamesh, someone Hercules would meet in his fifth season (in “Faith”), is incongruous with the show’s future use of him, and while we can’t blame the comic for not knowing something that hadn’t even been written yet, it’s another strike against the story’s usability. It is interesting though that in both the comic and the episode, he’s got dark, ulterior motives… As for where both Part I and II would go in the timeline, the artwork (and publication) jibe with somewhere in Xena‘s second year — although two stories about bringing one of the leads back to life would have been overkill. Also, Hercules and Iolaus seem to know Joxer — despite being surprised that he does truly know Xena — thus placing it after “When A Man Loves A Woman” and the Hind arc. So, late Season Two.

 

09) Xena: Warrior Princess #0 – “The Temple Of The Dragon God” (October 1997)

When Gabrielle is captured, Xena must fight a Dragon God.

Chakrams: 3/10      T/L: Between “The Black Wolf” and “The Prodigal”

In this standalone installment that’s apparently supposed to pre-date the two-parter above, Xena has to rescue Gabrielle from a dragon who captures souls and turns their bodies into zombies. That’s it — another “let’s save Gabrielle” story without any of the previous attempts to make use of the show’s universe — both the external mythological one and the internal one that Hercules and Xena had created. (No surprise: Thomas did NOT write this excursion.) As a result of this poor premise — one that I don’t think the show could have used unless it fleshed it out considerably by explaining some of the whys and filling out the drama with more interesting characters and twists/turns — I can’t give “Dragon God” many “Chakrams.”

Regarding the timeline, the lack of great character work places it closer to the first season — especially with a story about Gabrielle being the dull damsel in distress. Also, the artists drew her with a staff and a version of her Amazon costume from the latter half of the first year. Therefore, the most logical place this outing fits is in Season One — but before Gab came into her own during episodes like “The Prodigal” and “The Greater Good.”

 

10) “Xena: Warrior Princess & Joxer: Warrior Prince (I)” (November 1997)

Joxer must go through a series of labors before he can marry a princess.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “For Him The Bell Tolls” and “Ulysses”

Although this isn’t a Thomas script, this trilogy is a return to the general spirit of the series — with voices that (mostly) sound like their real counterparts on screen, and story elements that are not only indicative of a healthy understanding of the show, but also represent real narrative avenues that Xena had/would pursue. The premise of this arc has Joxer once again earning the love of a princess (like in “For Him The Bell Tolls”), thanks to one of Cupid’s arrows. But the princess’ father won’t let Joxer marry his daughter until he completes a series of seven labors (reminiscent of Hercules’), and while Gabrielle is charged with wrangling Aphrodite and fixing things, Xena journeys along with Joxer to keep him from getting killed. His first task is stealing the famed Amazonian girdle, during which the comic points out that, since “The Quest,” Gabrielle is queen. (There may even be an Ephiny cameo, but it’s unclear.) The second task is bringing back a hydra head, and the third is stealing a siren (seen in “Ulysses”).

As you can tell, these are all ideas that the show actually did engage with during this era — Season Two of Xena, Three of Herc — and any placement that we’d derive for this trilogy (yet, once again, I don’t think the show would have utilized a narrative so similar to many other episodes, most notably “For Him The Bell Tolls”) would likely be in this general vicinity. And even though Gabrielle is drawn with her Season One outfit, the Amazon story point makes it clear — even in Part I — that this has to come somewhere after “The Quest.” More below…

 

11) “Xena: Warrior Princess & Joxer: Warrior Prince (II)” (December 1997)

Xena tags along to make sure Joxer doesn’t die during his labors.

Chakrams: 5/10      T/L: Between “For Him The Bell Tolls” and “Ulysses”

In the second part of the Joxer: Warrior Prince trilogy, Xena tags along with Joxer as he continues his missions — even though he proclaims that he doesn’t need her. His fourth task is rescuing the Hestian Virigns (seen in “A Comedy Of Eros”) from a monster; his fifth task is to retrieve a tooth from Cerberus (with an appearance from Orpheus!); and his sixth task, on the cliffhanger that this middle entry leaves us, has Joxer rescuing sea nymph Galatea from the Cyclops Polyphemus (whom Ulysses blinded — although he doesn’t seem blind here). Meanwhile, Gabrielle is busy tracking down Aphrodite — and they seem to have met before, which means this has to come after the aforementioned “For Him The Bell Tolls.”

Once again, the character voices remain solid, but yes, the story’s hodgepodge of mythological elements, many of which were visible on the series, doesn’t come together quite right to make sense for the timeline. That is, Xena knows to expect Cupid’s errors are involved, but if we’re to assume that she knows this because she’s experienced them, then this would come after “A Comedy Of Eros,” during which Xena also rescued the Hestians. However, again, if Polyphemus is not yet blinded, then this must come before “Ulysses.” Ultimately, because Cupid was seen in “For Him The Bell Tolls” and no reference is made to the great revelation of “A Comedy Of Eros” — that Joxer loves Gabrielle — I’m comfortable placing this trilogy before that funny Season Two finale (which makes sense because of “Ulysses,” too).

 

12) “Xena: Warrior Princess & Joxer: Warrior Prince (III)” (January 1998)

While protecting Joxer, Xena gets to the bottom of this whole odd ordeal.

Chakrams: 4/10      T/L: Between “For Him The Bell Tolls” and “Ulysses”

Hercules and Iolaus cross over once again — briefly, and without any interaction with Xena — to help Gabrielle make inroads with Aphrodite and Cupid, giving credence to the notion that, even though Gabrielle and Aphrodite might have met once before (like in “For Him The Bell Tolls”), the love goddess is far better affiliated with Hercules than anyone on Xena. The hunky duo are wasted, as they were in the opening comic books, and Cupid arriving to set things straight is an easy fix, especially because we know it’s coming — Xena’s right from the start. (I really wish there was a twist!) The Joxer/Xena stuff remains engaging — even if the seven labor structure is inherently repetitive — as they beat Polyphemus and rescue the girl, before getting their last labor: Joxer must defeat Xena in one-on-one combat (shades of “Kindred Spirits”).

The story in Part III is what it was above, and since we’ve already worked through where it might fit in the timeline, here I’ll explain that the quality of the character voices and the effort put forward to tap into the show’s rhythms, and its narrative universe, again puts these comics around the “5 Chakrams” baseline. But the familiarity and lack of real character-driven discovery (perhaps not the job of the comics; yet, I digress…) keeps it from ranking better. Also, because the ending is anti-climactic and the crossover isn’t well-used, I’ve marked Part III slightly down from the first two. But, oh well; all three are easy, breezy fun.

 

7a/8a/9a) “The Theft Of The Young Lovelies” (August, September, & October 1997)

Xena and Gabrielle go undercover at Salmoneus’ finishing school.

Chakrams: 3/10      T/L: Between “The Black Wolf” and “The Prodigal”

With a script credited to Robert Trebor (who played Salmoneus on Hercules and Xena, before he was phased out due to alleged bad behavior), this dreadful excursion is divided into three equal parts of five pages each at the back of Xena: Warrior Princess Issues #1, 2, and 0. Even with only 15 pages, this is a thin story — with a derivative premise, juvenile writing, and a totally un-nuanced depiction of Xena, Gabrielle, and their relationship. First off, the premise of the pair going undercover at Salmoneus’ finishing school feels like a retread of “Here She Comes… Miss Amphipolis,” which was a far more interesting (and funny) take on the story. Furthermore, another comic book about Xena having to rescue Gabrielle? It’s tiresome.

Obviously, I’m not sure where the show ever could have used this idea, since it was basically covered in “…Miss Amphipolis,” which went into production eight whole months before this story was published. However, if we’re going with the notion that it has to fit somewhere, then I’m going to say mid to late Season One, again, for despite the fact that Gabrielle is drawn in her green bra (probably a last minute swap, by the look of it), the depiction of her character is regressive. And because Gabrielle is well acquainted with Salmoneus, we’ll put it after their introduction in “The Black Wolf” but before some of the heavier installments that gave her dimensionality (again, “The Prodigal” and “The Greater Good”)… Go figure — Trebor knows the show; you’d think his script would have illustrated this greater understanding.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena article in September! Tune in on Tuesday for more of the best episodes from Friends!

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