Review: Indiana Jones Omnibus Vol. 2 trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics)

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King. Don’t miss his recent Archaeology August review series of the Indiana Jones movies, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the site.]

In my last review, I started to tackle what I take to be the forgotten comic book legacy of Indiana Jones, stating with the first of five out-of-print omnibus collections from Dark Horse Comics. Two trades covered the Dark Horse run of Indy titles, with the other three reprinting the Marvel Comics run from the 1980s.

Since yours truly has never been able to find a copy of those latter three omnibus collections (subtitled The Further Adventures) for any cheaper than four times cover price, I’m left with only the two volumes of Dark Horse material. The first volume did not exactly win me over, collecting stories that seemed dated and overlong. All the same, some Indy is better than no Indy at all, and so I was relieved to find that the second omnibus — Indiana Jones Omnibus, Volume 2 — acquits itself much better than its predecessor. These comics strike a much better balance between adventure and historical context, more expertly utilizing comic book pacing by showing rather than telling.

[Review contains spoilers]

I won’t spend much time bemoaning again the fact that Dark Horse didn’t collect the stories in chronological order, nor did they include full covers for each of the fifteen issues collected here (even though two of them would have been Alex Ross depictions of Indiana Jones!). These are things that I would hope a subsequent printing — by whichever publisher holds the rights — would address. But I also don’t have the time to complain because this second omnibus includes five Indy adventures, compared to the first volume’s three.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

These five stories — briefly, Golden Fleece, Shrine of the Sea Devil, Iron Phoenix, Spear of Destiny, and Sargasso Pirates — are among the better Indiana Jones comics, though I’ll venture to say that they still never quite match the stratospheric legacy of the films or even the equally favorable video games. Unlike in the first volume, here you’ll find more stories I might imagine myself seeking out and rereading someday. However, just as the Indiana Jones comics were beginning to hit their stride, as evidenced by the tales in this book, Dark Horse pulled the plug, with the franchise hibernating until 2008.

The book begins with Indiana Jones and the Golden Fleece, two issues written by Pat McGreal and Dave Rawson and illustrated by Ken Hooper. Golden Fleece is brisk, almost manic in its pace, and consequently some of its twists and turns can be a bit predictable. On the other hand, Golden Fleece does the kind of successful mythological dive for Greek legend that the films did best with Christian icons. Indeed, Volume 2 is overall more overtly concerned with MacGuffins and settling into the kind of formula that made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade such smash hits. Here, Indy is in pursuit of Jason’s golden fleece, accompanied by a pregnant Greek woman and a Dutch antiquities dealer who looks suspiciously like Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing from Dracula (1931). Unique among the comics, Golden Fleece is narrated by Indy’s memoirs, a technique that never quite works for this story and might not have been necessary had this story been given an extra issue to breathe.

Shrine of the Sea Devil, on the other hand, needs no extra space because it’s an incredibly lean and breakneck story. Originally serialized in four short installments of the anthology series Dark Horse Comics, this one-shot by Gary Gianni (writing and drawing) manages to throw Indy in the path of mutineers, a kraken, a shipwreck, and a certain surprising historical cameo that would be criminal to spoil. That’s to say nothing of what appears to be a brief appearance by Popeye himself, which is surprisingly not the last time this particular sailor man appears in this book. As with the last volume’s Dan Barry, who cut his teeth on adventure strips like Tarzan, Gianni did some work for Classics Illustrated before a seven-year stint on Prince Valiant; he also did some work on one of Dark Horse’s other licensed properties, The Shadow. Gianni writes Indiana Jones like an adventure serial, and it works; if the property is ever revived in comics form, Gianni would be an excellent voice for the writer’s room (though Brian Michael Bendis has often opined that he’d like a crack at it). (I would read that! — Ed.)

Right at the heart of the book is Iron Phoenix, and it might be the best Indiana Jones story in the volume. Iron Phoenix is written by Lee Marrs and illustrated by Leo Durañona, late of last volume’s lackluster Arms of Gold, although this story is more properly an adaptation of the Fate of Atlantis sequel that never was. Here, Indiana Jones is in a race against the Soviets to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which a Nazi holdout in Bolivia (led by the Red Skull-esque Matthias Jäger) believes could resurrect their army and their führer. It reads more like a video game than even Fate of Atlantis did, with action sequences clearly intended to have been stealth or puzzle levels. The plot too feels like classic Indy, a mix of Raiders and the Cold War aesthetic of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’ve long maintained that lost and apocryphal media (like Zack Snyder’s rumored Justice League sequels) ought to have a home in comics, and it’s a treasure to see Iron Phoenix proving my theory has weight.

Next up, it’s Spear of Destiny, which frames itself as a thematic sequel to Last Crusade. Written by Elaine Lee and penciled by Will Simpson and Dan Spiegle, Spear of Destiny begins with an extended reprise of Last Crusade’s climax, in which both Indiana and Henry Jones ruminate on the loss of the grail and their own twin senses of unworthiness. It’s an auspicious beginning, and Sean Connery’s Henry Jones is all over Spear of Destiny, but the story never quite circles back around to its more dour reading of Last Crusade’s rousing conclusion. Instead, Lee’s script works very hard to link the Christian Spear of Destiny (itself part of a matched set with the Holy Grail) with an older Celtic legend. While the promise of more Henry Jones is a keen one — in fact, why hasn’t there been more tie-in media with dear old dad? — Spear of Destiny never lives up to its promise that it will continue the father/son dynamic from Last Crusade. Rather, Henry Jones in this underwhelming story could have easily been Marcus Brody or Harold Oxley (had the latter been created in time).

Finally, Sargasso Pirates turns Indy into a fish out of water by thrusting him into the water on a seafaring adventure scripted by Karl Kesel and Eduardo Barreto. Your spirits, like mine, are doubtless immediately buoyed by seeing the names of these familiar comics mainstays, and the story is as reliable as you’d expect from them. Sargasso Pirates is almost like Shrine of the Sea Devil on steroids, with multiple mutinies, a horde of deadly sea creatures, and no dry land in sight. It’s also got the book’s next round of Popeye references, with a one-eyed quartermaster named Segar and a villain who talks like comics' first sailor man (“I’d hates t’see such’r romantical couple drifts apart!”).

Set in 1939, Sargasso Pirates ought to be well out of Indy’s “fortune and glory” phase (which he shirked after 1935’s Temple of Doom), but I wonder what might have happened if this story had featured an Indiana Jones who lusted more for the treasure in the Sargasso Pirates' hold. Kesel, however, has accounted for that question, adding into the cast a grifter calling himself New Jersey Jones and hawking counterfeit antiquities. It’s a hoot, and it certainly seems that Kesel was teeing up more adventures with the ersatz Jones and enigmatic femme fatale Cairo. But it was not to be — the property would lay dormant for twelve years before a sputtering near-restart with Tomb of the Gods, which sadly did not seem to restart comic book interest in the way we might have hoped.

I began thinking about the Indiana Jones comics as missed opportunities, and after two omnibus collections (and three more out there in the mists somewhere), I’m still of that opinion. I have no idea how the complicated rights to the property are entangled, though with director James Mangold directing the upcoming fifth film after Steven Spielberg stepped away, I have to wonder if the reins are loosening. I can’t imagine that there isn’t an audience for well-crafted adventure stories starring the world’s foremost archaeologist, but perhaps the franchise needs only a few good issues to remind comics readers how much fun an Indiana Jones yarn can be. The stories collected in the Indiana Jones Omnibus, Volume 2 are a good start, but there could be so much more.

We can look to what Marvel has done with the Star Wars franchise as a template. Just as the Star Wars comics have stayed very close to the established continuity of the saga, filling in the gaps between films, one could imagine a Marvel run of Indiana Jones fleshing out the rivalry between Indy and Belloq, or depicting Indy’s first meeting with Jock Lindsay. Likewise, we might see a few issues explaining the backstory between Henry Jones and Marcus Brody, or between Brody and Sallah, who recognize each other as old friends in Last Crusade. We might learn how — or even whether — Abner Ravenwood met his fate, or what became of Willie Scott and Short Round after Pankot Palace. We might even get a look at Indy’s OSS days with Mac McHale. There are so many opportunities, even if a publisher wants to play it safe and stick close to the movies. And of course, Marvel has been very generous about reprinting the old Dark Horse Star Wars material; why Indy hasn’t gotten the same shining treatment is anyone’s guess. We’ve gone 40 years without Indy making much of a splash in the comics; perhaps the next 40 is when he’ll truly shine.


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