On History: Lion Forge Reviews

By | Tuesday, August 04, 2015 2 comments
Lion Forge has been pretty actively lately in securing the licenses to 1980s television shows for translation into the comic book format. They've got Miami Vice, Knight Rider, Airwolf, and they recently sent me review copies of their upcoming Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster graphic novels. I expect the rationale behind their thinking is primarily that nostalgia is pretty popular these days, and by focusing on properties of the 1980s, they'll be targeting Gen Xers and some older Millenials who are out of college and have some disposable income. Despite falling pretty squarely into the former group, I've long been pretty actively against nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. If a publisher wants to revisit an older property, that's fine, but I'm going to view it on its own merits, not against any fond feelings I might've had for the original.

Interestingly, the two books they sent me were ones that I had no great affection for in the first place. I did watch Punky Brewster for the first season or two, but not religiously, but I think I only saw Saved by the Bell maybe a dozen times in my whole life and most of those were as re-runs when I was on a treadmill in my 30s. I think the only one of their books I might have less familiarity with would be Airwolf which, to date, I have never seen a single episode of.

Both books seem to start shortly before their respective shows began, thereby including "origins" that would have been handled in the shows' opening sequences. This does two things: 1) it establishes the characters and premise for readers who might be totally unfamiliar with the shows, and 2) it establishes some updates/retcons for old fans. In the case of SbtB, there's a conscious decision of highlighting the contemporaneousness of the stories, giving the character modern cell phones, laptops, etc. Over in Punky, there is some updated technology (although many of the computers still use CRTs) but the big update is making Henry Warnimont a long-lost relative instead of complete stranger. This does change some of the character dynamics somewhat, but I suspect this was done because of the social implications of an adult male just taking in some random homeless girl.

The overall approach to the two books is markedly different. Saved by the Bell adheres more closely to the original format of the show, where each installment is a stand-alone story, based on a single driving element, with a series of comedic set-ups and punchlines. Zach and Slater competing for a date with Kelly, for example. Interestingly, by moving this format into comics, it highlights just how similar the show's original concept was to the old Archie comics formula. Previously, I would've found this more problematic but as Archie itself has moved away from their classic forumlas, there's not really any contemporary competition in that regard. Which I'm sure suits Lion Forge just fine, as they don't have the decades of experience perfecting that formula that Archie has had. Saved by the Bell isn't bad about what they do, but it's not nearly as elegant as a Harry Lucey strip.

Punky is written more as a single narrative focusing on Henry trying to adopt Punky. It has the same types of jokes and humor as the show, but laid over a solid and serious story. The show also did have Punky's legal adoption brought up, but that was over and done with by the third episode, allowing the show to mostly flow over less weighty subjects. It's possible the tenor of the comic will change after Punky's adoption (occurring here near the end of the book) but I got a deeper sense of emotional heart here than I recall from the show.

One thing thing that both books share is (what I assume is) a deliberate decision to not depict the likenesses of the original actors. The character designs are only loosely based one or two key characteristics of actors, but there's no real resemblence to Mark-Paul Gosselaar or Soleil Moon Frye. They even changed Punky's dog Brandon from a Labrador to more of a Border Terrier! I presume this is all to avoid getting agreements from all the actors to portray their likeness and, while it's largely a non-issue, there were a couple characters that seemed far enough removed from the actors' likeness to almost suggest they were supposed to be an entirely different character. (Notably, Mr. Belding and Henry.) Obviously, this is a non-issue for people coming to the stories with no real awareness of the shows, but it might prove distracting for the fans these books seem to be aimed at.

Overall, I didn't find anything that particularly stood out with the books, either good or bad. They were generally okay, but that was about it. Punky Brewster definitely did a better job of emotionally resonnating, but I don't think that was something that they were even trying to do with Saved by the Bell. While you're supposed to feel something for Punky and her ersatz family, SbtB isn't supposed to be anything more than a hook to string together some mildy amusing jokes and gags on. If you were a fan of either show, you'd probably get a kick out of these, but if not, I don't know that you're missing anything special.
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Matt K said...

n.b. Saved by the Bell had a comic book adaptation once before, actually. At some point in the 1990s it had a brief outing with Harvey. (Which also produced a briefer adaptation of the Back to the Future animated series, where I must have seen the SbtB promotion that your post vaguely called to mind.)

These days I would think that a miniseries of biopics about each of the cast, with all their subsequent cringeworthy moments, would offer a lot more entertainment… I presume you could do nonfiction without a likeness license? I can't imagine that Bluewater would repeatedly make investments like that, certainly.

That's an interesting point. I'm not sure how/why you would need a person's approval for one but not the other.

Also, I did some quick searches for that old Harvey comic. Wow, the art (at least based on the not-surprisingly-uncreditted covers) on that was horrible!