30 October 2009

Stop shooting that comic book! A Venture Bros. Review

Lord, deliver us from 1978.
-- Agent Cardholder, "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel"

Adult Swim lists the Season 4 premiere of The Venture Bros. as Episode 46, but that may have been the most straightforward part of this dense, complex but worthy episode.  There was enough material in this half hour for two episodes, but somehow Jackson Publick and the rest of the real-life Team Venture managed to pack it all into a single installment.  On that basis alone, Adult Swim's decision to air it on five consecutive nights was well justified.

Here's the synopsis:  "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel" follows the series' central characters, along with Henchman 21, Sgt. Hatred and Dr. Orpheus, as they all deal with the aftermath of Season 3's explosive finale.  (In this case, the adjective is no exaggeration.)  Peppered with references to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), the episode uses Marvel Comics #1(1939) as a framing mechanism.

Told in traditional, linear fashion, "Blood of the Father" would have been challenging enough to follow.  As it unfolds, however, it quickly becomes clear that we are dealing with two distinct and parallel plot lines.  Both lines start at the same point: the season-ending explosion that decapitated both HELPER the robot and 21's best friend, Henchman 24.  The episode's coda, the short scene that always follows the credits at the end of a completed VB episode, marks the end of both lines.  The additional challenge comes from the opposite directions of the lines.

The forward-moving line, which opens the episode, features Brock Sampson alone.  When the explosion occurred, Brock was literally walking away from his job with the Office of Secret Intelligence.  Severely wounded, then patched up by OSI doctors, Brock resumes his escape,  convalescing for several months before deciding to return to action as a free agent.  But things have changed in his absence (including his weight).  Each scene in this line is marked with the title of one of the stories that comprised Marvel Comics #1.

The other plot line, which involves Dr. Venture and the twins, moves backwards.  In the aftermath of the explosion, Venture finds himself harassed, first by 21, then by neo-Nazis.  21 wants Venture to use his spectacular (and illegal) cloning facility to recreate 24.  To pay for the operation, 21 offers Venture his family heirloom: a mint copy of Marvel Comics #1.  Later, bringing with them a dog that holds Adolf Hitler's soul, the Nazis threaten to kill Venture unless he uses his cloning skills to give Hitler a new body.  The scenes in this line also get visual tags, but these show the value of 21's comic book at the point each scene occurs.  Since the scenes appear in reverse order, the value begins at zero and ends at $500,000, the book's value when Venture first receives it.

Unfortunately for 21, the residents of the Venture compound don't understand what he has given them.  To them, it's just another comic book, and in each scene it appears, it takes a form of abuse that only copies of, say, Human Events, should have to endure.  Even after being turned into a doggie toy by Dr. Orpheus, the poor book is still worth $850, but the last abuse finishes it off.  Once 21 learns of his book's fate, he turns to Orpheus to resurrect 24, only to be turned down again.

(Like the episode itself, both the title of this post and the picture atop it revolve around the book.  In the screen cap, 21 is arguing with Doc Venture just before his visit with Orpheus.  The title arises because, at one point, Hank shoots -- yes, shoots -- the comic book.)

And that dog does have Hitler's soul locked in it, as becomes apparent to everyone but Dean, whose mental state has been deteriorating.  To Dean -- apparently the only person who can finish Hitler off -- the dog is just a pet, and his best friend, until the Nazis return.  Eight months after their first visit, they are displeased to see that Hitler remains in canine form.  It falls to Orpheus, Sgt. Hatred, Venture's archenemy-turned-bodyguard, and a rebuilt HELPER to try save the day.

I can't say I enjoyed seeing Hatred become Brock's replacement.  It's hard to root for anyone so pathetic that OSI has to drug the pedophilia out of him.

Various message boards, including the official one at Adult Swim, have suggested that eight months pass from the beginning of the plot lines to their end, but I think that's an underestimate.  We don't know how long it takes after the explosion for the Nazis to first arrive, nor do we know how long Brock's recuperation lasted.  Either length must add to the eight months, and judging from the magnitude of Brock's weight fluctuations, it's likely that both of them do.  I'd guess that the total length is somewhere between 12 and 18 months, not the popularly reckoned 8.  Perhaps later episodes will clarify the issue.

As I said, that's a lot to pack into 23 minutes of animation, and there's quite a bit I haven't mentioned.  You probably will need at least two viewings to understand it all, but it's worth the effort.

Grade:  91/100.  I initially knocked it down to 87 because of Hatred's increased role, but I've become more forgiving.  A little bit more.

Update (2 Nov 09): Jackson Publick has provided a ruling on the timing.  On his blog, he says that the episode takes place over nine months.  Brock's weight changes would seem to suggest a longer span, but everything else fits.

No comments: