Monday, September 12, 2011

Tool Time! (Part 1)

I recently rediscovered a gem of a comic I had completely forgotten about. In 1986, Marvel's "Epic" line of creator-owned comics published Alan Weiss' seminal masterpiece Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool, a six-issue limited series. I was astonished to discover that Mr. Weiss is openly heterosexual, because this comic is every bit as gay as you thought it was when you read that title two and a half seconds ago. I was also astonished to discover that, despite myself, I kind of...liked it.

Not that that'll stop me from making fun of it. Grab your tool and let's go!

Our story starts with Miss Shari Barrett, who is of Filipino descent - this will be important shortly - searching a construction site, looking for a man. Been there.

She stops to talk to the foreman, who is racist. This point is hammered home quite a bit, starting when he asks the Asian chick out for sushi and getting worse from there. The other guy talking is Flynn G. Ryan, aka "Flyin' Ryan". He's a good guy - we know this because the racist guy throws him in a mud pit. Shari is unimpressed.

She also changes color like her skin cells are mood rings, as we'll see. The foreman lets his racist flag fly - he also calls her a "little lichee nut" as he attacks Flynn with a wrench, for no particular reason. She tries and fails to stop him, but our hero comes to the rescue!

Here's our Adonis, looking all set to star in the gay porn parody of Bob the Builder. "They don't call him Steelgrip fa nothin!"

The foreman is racist! Did you get that yet? He fires Steelgrip and Ryan for not letting him murder them...I'm not entirely sure that's just cause, but New York construction sites are a law unto themselves...but Shari's got a better offer for them both. Before she can explain...

You may not have known this, but construction workers all specialize in one tool, which they are named after! It's very convenient when you need to assign tasks in a hurry. Now Steelgrip and Ryan, please go see Stapler Susan in accounting to pick up your last paycheck. The security guard, Gun Gary, will be escorting you out.

You might assume that since the writer has taken pains to introduce Steelgrip's construction worker pals and give them each a unique and memorable moniker that they will be important to the story. You would be mistaken.

I think he's gone through most of Asia by this point. We get it, racist = bad guy!

Uh...except when racist = good guy. Ryan starts here, and he doesn't stop - it gets worse in the next issue. But for now, our protagonistic trio walk the streets of New York while Shari fills her new partners in on her back story. She was a humble secretary, fetching coffee and fielding unwanted sexual advances, but with her degrees in math and computers she felt there must be a... (I'll let her finish that sentence.)

I include this panel for two reasons. In case you have forgotten that this comic is from the 80s, this display of typical New Yorkers will remind you. Weiss eightiesed the hell out of this panel. Also, I'm hoping someone can tell me what the hell Ryan is talking about. An oregano? What the fuck does that mean? I think it may be a private slang term the writer has with himself, because the only slang definition I could find online was pot, which makes even less sense then just randomly calling her a seasoning. I'm going to assume he's saying something racist and move on.

Shari ignores Ryan's babblings and describes her initial encounter with the other two recurring cast members. The first is a mysterious old man, Mr. Pilgrim, as played by Quentin Crisp.

And his psychiatrist, Doctor Giant Rick James. Pilgrim has invented the All-Purpose Power Tool using the advanced magic/science/handwave of "technalchemy". He's chosen Shari to be the programmer of the tool, and Steelgrip to be its operator. All without uttering a word! Remember that for later. It won't be important. Not only will it never be explained, but given revelations about Mr. Pilgrim that come in the final issue, it doesn't even make sense. A mysterious plot point introduced as if it's a major clue and then ignored? Lost fans, if you only read one comic this year...!

Ooh, gurrrl, you so crazy! There's a famous artist that Weiss seems to be inspired by whenever he's drawing Steelgrip - you can see it in a lot of close-ups of his face, like here, and especially in his full body dramatic poses. Now let me see, who can it be...

Oh, right, erotic gay artist Tom of Finland! If you don't see the similarities just yet, consider this picture.

Tone down the bulge and the nipples a tad and it could pretty much be any one of the covers to this series. Anyway, Shari leads our hot and heavy duo to a vacant lot, where she promises a demonstration. She programs the tool, then tells Steelgrip to...uh, well, to...grab hold of the...uh... 

There is a line beyond which subtext becomes text, and Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool dances back and forth across that line like a coked-out go-go boy desperate for rent money. Shari never said the tool needed to be straddled to operate, but whatever works for ya, Steelgrip.

The tool unfolds itself, forming a colossal machine out of thin air, building a one-twentieth scale replica of the Empire State Building in ten minutes (exactly what that vacant lot was screaming for), and then folding itself back into its toolbox. Shari explains that Mr. Pilgrim wants them to form "Star Key Enterprises", putting themselves out to hire for corporations, and that he'll front all costs for one year as part of an experiment to test the tool. Steelgrip asks if Ryan is part of the deal.

There is nothing in this entire six-issue run to suggest that Steelgrip was not about to say "in love". Damn you for cutting him off, Shari!

So it's settled - Shari programs the tool, Steelgrip operates it, and Ryan does everything else. Shari leads them to their new base of operations - the New York Public Library! Or rather, a certain feature on the greenery.

All the greenery surrounding the New York Public Library is right off the street, so I don't think this hidden passageway is going to stay hidden for much longer. Whatever - what'll you see where this underground passage leads!

It leads to...a penthouse apartment? At the top of the main branch of the New York Public Library?

A secret penthouse apartment in the New York Public Library with a view that places it several stories higher than the top floor of the building it's in, accessed via a secret tunnel on the front lawn. And why not? There's no reason given as to why they need the "secret" tunnel - they're a legitimate business dealing with public corporations, not the Legion of Doom. Sweet digs, though. Sweet, impossible digs.

Mr. Pilgrim has hired Steelgrip partly because he fits the physical ideal of the American working man - seriously, he goes on and on about it, you'd almost think the writer old man had a fetish for construction workers or something. He's even designed a special costume just for Steelgrip!

It's certainly...snug. In aaaaalllll the right places.

Before too long they've got their first mission - a meteor is going to crash into Chicago, and they've got to use the tool to catch it! They board their private jet and head for the Windy City, where they're greeted by a barrage of press and enthusiastic citizens. Pilgrim's got a great PR firm, I guess.

"And Ryan's lady is back in New York, even though you didn't ask. She lives in Brooklyn. You wouldn't know her, but she's totally real and I didn't just make her up." Also - "technotary"? Really? It sounds like a nickname that stuck when your three-year-old baby brother couldn't pronounce "secretary".

Turns out the meteor is going to miss the city of Chicago itself - instead it's going to hit somewhere in the boonies.

I believe this is meant to be Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, who was in office when this comic was written. Really paints him in a great light, huh? "Danger is passed! I mean, the danger to the important people - city-folks! Seriously, if you're going to live on a farm or something, you're just asking to be incinerated by a radioactive fireball from space. Fuck those hicks. Now who wants deep-dish?" 

Steelgrip disagrees, and the trio rush away to save the non-fabulous.

Remember, if you're too anxious, your tool might not work. That's good advice for us all. They land on a farm on the outskirts of Chicago, and are greeted by the local rubes, whom the comic treats like the cast of The Grapes of Wrath. Steelgrip plants himself and gets ready to operate his tool.

This pose can't be accidental on the part of the artist. It just can't - it happens too often. Anyway, they save the day, and in appreciation, the poor but kindhearted citizens of Nowhere give Steelgrip a homemade apple pie as thanks. One week later...

Yes, one week later. I don't care how good it was, Ryan is NOT still talking about the apple pie. No time to bask in the afterglow - an explosion rocks their secret public library headquarters. Terrorists are setting off bombs at the UN, planning to blast it into the East River! Our trio rushes down 42nd Street to help. One problem - to secure the building, the tool needs to be placed in the open plaza, in full view of the armed terrorists! Shari programs the tool, and Ryan places it successfully, dodging fire to rejoin the others. But are they too late?

Yes they are. Drawing buildings is hard! Photostat is your friend! How does our secondary hero, Flyin' Ryan, feel about the situation?

Towelheads? Seriously? Not ok, Mr. Weiss! Anyway, Steelgrip runs out to the plaza to start up his tool, but gets shot multiple times. That takes us into issue two, so while Racist Ryan drags him to the machine, Steelgrip takes a little time for a flashback, to catch up all those readers who thought, "Steelgrip Starkey and the All Purpose Power Tool? You know what, I'm going to wait for issue two. I'll bet that's where it gets good."

NOT OK! New York City has quite enough racist muscle queens with big tools, Steelgrip. We don't need another.

With Ryan and Steelgrip out in the open and under fire, Shari rushes in to help her teammates. Remember how I said her skin was like a mood ring? Here's a little montage I put together.

All three of these images are from the same page. She starts a sort of olive drab, then a big shift to closer to Steelgrip's color, then a smaller shift towards a sort of Jersey Shore orange. She quite remarkable in her natural habitat - she'll turn the color of bark and leaves to help her hide from predators.

Anyway, she and Ryan help Steelgrip get his hand on the tool and...

Yup, still gay. Anyway, the tool saves the UN and captures the terrorists, hooray! Steelgrip recovers from his bullet wounds in their luxurious library annex.

Look at Steelgrip, acting like he doesn't care! What a brave little soldier. Don't worry, Steelgrip. This the second and final reference to Flynn's mysterious girlfriend. She is never seen at all nor is she ever mentioned again after this. I don't think you have much competition to worry about.

I'm not entirely sure what that entails, but count me in!!! Oh, you mean an actual flashback? Uh...I knew that. Steelgrip recounts Ryan's history - he was a chopper pilot in Viet Nam (thus, "Flyin'" Ryan - soldiers are named after their job, just like construction workers), shot down and captured. He carved that "R" in his forehead as a sign of resistance, got rescued by Marines, spent seven years travelling in the East learning the mystic secrets of the Orient (no, seriously), and finally met Steelgrip on a construction site in 1980.

Steelgrip, if you hadn't noticed, is wearing the GAYEST OUTFIT IN ALL OF GAYDOM! I mean, I love it, it's totally hot, and I'd be looking where Ryan's looking too. But 1980 or not, he's working with a group of artists who are also construction workers, and he's wearing the tightest outfit of any of them. And that's pretty damn gay. So how would you describe your relationship with your new best friend, Steelgrip?

Master and...oh, come on, you're making this too easy for me! Where would you say Ryan's right hand is in this picture? I'm pretty sure it's a few minutes after this that Mr. Starkey earned the name "Steelgrip" for the first time.

But enough of the past - time to live in the present! Get out of bed and back to work, Steelgrip!

Nothing gay about that underwear choice at all. Let's move on. Doctor Giant Rick James arrives and gives them their next mission, involving cleaning up an oil spill and stopping Ecuador from being destroyed by an undersea earthquake. I'm skipping that. (This is a six issue series, and this blog post is already huge. I can't cover all the awesomeness!)

Issue three sees the Star Key team being propositioned by Globelock Industries, which doesn't sound evil at all. They want to hire the trio and the tool for a construction job in the isolated village of Riverbend, Alaska.

I honestly thought that was Steelgrip in drag playing with those action figures. Dick Cheney goes on to explain that time is pressing.

I understand what the Evil Executive is trying to say here, but I still want to explain to him that seasons don't work like that. The Star Key gang accept the offer, but once they've left the room the sinister businessmen reveal that they plan to copy the designs for Steelgrip's tool once they see it in action. (Just turn off "safesearch" on Google and you can get all the tool designs you want.)

Road trip! Off to Alaska!

LOOK OUT FOR THAT BEAR MISTER STERLING IT'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!! I've never been to Alaska, so I'm willing to accept that taxidermy is popular enough that there might be such a display in a major airport. But would the animals really be posed such that, if you stand right in the crook of the platform, it looks like every single one of them is about to kill you? That buck looks fucking pissed. Even the little fox looks poised to back up whatever play the grizzly decides to make. Welcome to Alaska, strangers! Even our dead wildlife hates you!

Ryan hires a local union crew, plus a foreman who reports to Evil Incorporated and naturally hates Steelgrip and Ryan. The tool gets a lot of the job done, and while the crew, Steelgrip and Shari head to a bar to relax after a hard day of watching a machine work, Ryan decides to check out a bunch of derelict construction vehicles seemingly abandoned at the site.

Sabotage! Of course, only a chemist could identify the syrup in the oil. Luckily, Flynn's tongue has a Masters of Science in Molecular Biochemistry with a specialization in Syrup Identification.

Meanwhile, Steelgrip and Shari have a run-in with the grumpy foreman, Bittner, at the gayest bar in all of Alaska. Which, given the man-to-woman ratio up there, is pretty damn gay.

"What a hard day! Time to relax with a refreshing ice-cold glass of pee. You guys want to split a pitcher?"

Ryan stays out all night talking with local sculptor/crazy person Moosehead Murphy (no quotation marks, so I assume Moosehead is his given name). Steelgrip misses him a whole hell of a lot...

...although maybe that's his knee.

The tool is stolen from the hotel by persons unknown, as part of an extremely complicated plot involving Moosehead and a native Inuit chief posing as a demon called a Tupsalik. The whole plot is way too complicated to go into. "The white man is poisoning the land" is the gist of it. Steelgrip doesn't care.

No, seriously, he doesn't care.  Rape, schmape, where's the fucking tool, Grizzly Adams?!?

Moosehead Murphy has seriously overestimated Steelgrip Starkey's concern for the plight of the indigenous people of Alaska. Meanwhile, Shari is having dinner with Alasakan Globelock rep Mister Sterling, hoping to recruit his help in finding the tool. At least, that's supposed to be why she's meeting with him. First she enjoys a nice leisurely dinner with him, followed by a tour of the company coat closet.

I include this panel just to remind you that every single character in this comic is racist. Sterling puts the moves on Shari, and she's disgusted.

Ha ha ha! Indian giver! Get it? Because Indians made the coat, and I'm racist! Ha ha ha!

Shari finally gets around to telling him about the tool being missing, and he promises to help, while secretly cursing that somebody else stole the tool before his men got a chance to.

Shari tries to hitch a ride back to town with Angak, a member of the construction crew, but because he's a native he's naturally in league with Moosehead and Tupsalik, so he instead kidnaps her and takes her to Steelgrip and Ryan (who were captured themselves in a part of the story that I skipped over).

The kidnappers insist that Steelgrip show them how to operate the power tool so that they can destroy an evil dam that is evil. Steelgrip, to everyone's surprise, agrees. But when Tupsalik grabs the shaft of Steelgrip's tool...

Really it's because the tool is programmed to only work for Steelgrip, but why give a logical explanation when a racist taunt will do? Enraged, and with a cry of "Your medicine is weak!" (sigh), Tupsalik attacks Steelgrip with a tomahawk and a wooden dildo!

He really doesn't know Steelgrip if he thinks THAT little thing is going to scare him. The two fight pointlessly for a page or two, while Steelgrip's shirt is ripped off piece by piece. I'm not complaining.

Ryan calls the fight to a halt, and convinces Shari and Steelgrip that the natives are in the right after all, despite their thieving, kidnapping and life-threatening tactics. Steelgrip, despite demands from Mister Sterling to turn over the power tool, suddenly decides he does care about Native affairs after all, and uses his tool to destroy the evil dam that is evil. Hooray, happy ending, somehow! Somebody take us out with something racist!

Thanks, Shari! That brings us to the halfway point of this massive miniseries. There's just too much to say about Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool, so I'll leave the rest for next time. You'll just have to wait to find out who's mining the moon! (Hint - they're not white!)

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