It still surprises me that Double Dragon died out completely. You’d think we’d see a remake or sequel for the Wii or PS3 around this time, but nothing. No flashy resurrections like Ninja Turtles or Transformers. It just died, unless you count the re-release on the Gameboy Advance.
The game’s story was pretty basic. Billy and Jimmy Lee are two brothers with identical fighting skills. In a slightly decrepit future, their mutual girlfriend Marian is shot by a machine gun-toting cyberpunk and taken away. The brothers have to fight through legions of punks before saving Marian. In the NES version of the game, they couldn’t get the 2-player co-op to work, so they just made Jimmy Lee evil. Ignore that.
Several sequels were made, each playing up the same formula. Marian gets kidnapped and the brothers beat up street gangs in retaliation. Some of these games added weird mystical stuff to the series, like demonic gymnast crime bosses and evil mummies. There was a fighting game made for the Neo-Geo, but I never played it. Around then, the series took a turn for the worse.
A cartoon series was released and it was pretty bad. Instead of plainclothes martial arts vigilantes, the Lee brothers were full-blown superheroes. This led to a movie with a similar plot that was atrocious. In the videogames, the brothers teamed up with the Battletoads in a completely random crossover. Double Dragon 5 was released, but in actuality, it was a lame one-on-one fighter tie-in to the cartoon.
Back in 2002, SNK Playmore was set to release a follow-up fighting game called Rage of the Dragons, but the licensing fell through. Hence, the characters became Billy Lewis, Jimmy Lewis, Mariah and Abubo (rather than Abobo).
This comic, released by Marvel, came out in 1991. This is several years before the cartoon and the movie and the game where they fight a giant space rat named Big Blag. Instead, this is right around the time when Double Dragon 3 was released on the NES. Despite that, the series strays from loyalty to the games. Yes, Billy and Jimmy beat up punks and Marian is there, but besides that, the comic goes out into left field to add color. It’s more similar to the cartoon in ways, with the mystical superpowers and off-the-wall villains. The comic doesn’t even have Abobo in it!
Yet… strangely, it works. For the first four issues, the writer is Dwayne McDuffie. I could give you a laundry list of great things McDuffie’s been involved with, but all I need to say is that he’s currently writing Fantastic Four and Justice League and he had a huge role in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon. It becomes a battle of wacky concepts vs. consistently good writer and the latter wins out. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed an obscure-yet-familiar comic by McDuffie.
The background is that in the near future, Oligopolis is rampant with crime. The source of the city’s darkness is Nightfall, a Blackheart look-alike with his own gang of colorful henchmen. Marian is a police officer and mutual friend of both Billy and Jimmy. As the Double Dragons, the two regularly foil Nightfall’s plans with only a select few knowing who they are. They constantly train together under an elderly sensei who only refers to himself as “Sensei” and refuses to tell the Double Dragons about their origins.
Anyway. Marian has some evidence against Nightfall and is on her way to give it to the commissioner when Kingdom Come Flash shows up. Only he’s known as Superluminal here.
Some kids that regularly play messenger between the Dragons and Marian see this kidnapping go down and rush off for help. Superluminal reminds us that this is obviously part of the plan, since he could catch these kids easily if he wanted to.
They barge in on Billy and Jimmy as they perform a kata together. From here we see that Billy (blond hair) is the smart aleck while Jimmy (black hair) is more serious and dedicated. Upon hearing that Marian’s been kidnapped, the brothers and Sensei go downstairs, where they have a giant dragon statue waiting.
The statue begins to speak. “The way of the dragon is the way of the spirit. The force within me is the force of life itself. Only a chosen few are ever blessed with knowledge of the Dragon Force. Perhaps one in a generation, perhaps less. You two are special. Twin brothers. Two yet one. Yin and yang. Light and dark. In opposition, yet in perfect harmony. William and James Lee, you have been chosen to be the guardians of the Dragon Force. In return, the power of the Dragon Force is yours to call upon. But be warned, you must remain in harmony. If you should lose this balance, if either side becomes too strong, the whole suffers… and may even be destroyed.”
“Together, your power and skill is more than doubled. But individually, you are each less than half of the whole. Remember to always travel as one and your victory is assured.”
So they’re like twin Iron Fists, only they have to fight side-by-side or things fall apart. I really love that dynamic.
The two ride off on their futuristic motorcycles towards the scene of the crime and meet a couple dozen thugs waiting for them. Beyond them is a villain named Legerdemain, who looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and a priest. While handing Jimmy a small hourglass, he taunts the two about Marian’s whereabouts. Using an illusion, he projects the image of Marian tied up in the bottom half of a giant hourglass, scaled so that the hourglass in Jimmy’s hands is synced up. As pissed as the Double Dragons are, Legerdemain says that they could either bring him in or let him tell them where Marian is held with a fighting chance to save her.
They reluctantly leave Legerdemain to himself and follow his directions. On a bridge, the brothers deal with another grouping of hired bad guys, who mention that they get a hundred thousand bucks for bringing them in. The fight goes well until one of the idiots tries using a batch of dynamite on this wooden bridge. Jimmy grabs onto what’s left of the bridge and catches Billy. They’re being watched over by yet another one of Nightfall’s flunkies.
Even without the bridge to hold onto, they still climb up by punching holes into the rock walls. With little effort, they knock out Exoskeleton and continue to bicker. They get closer to their destination with two paths to go down. Annoyed at each other, the brothers split up (which, if you’ve been paying attention, is something they really shouldn’t do). Remember that annoying moving wall part in the first Double Dragon game? The part where pieces of the wall would just randomly pop out and kill you without giving you a chance? That’s what they each go through. Good God did I hate that part of the game.
Billy acts nonchalant as Jimmy remains vigilant. Ninjas pop out of the shadows and attack each of them. Both Lee brothers are brought down by the superior numbers and think about how badly they messed up by straying from each other. Hurt from the battle, they each place a hand on the nearby wall for support, unknowing that they are standing right next to each other. Side-by-side and like-minded, the two gain the strength needed to trash the ninjas. They apologize to each other and move on to find Marian and the giant hourglass.
They free her in time. To show that she isn’t completely worthless, Marian pulls out her gun and shoots a random attacking ninja. With the danger gone, Billy and Jimmy go back to their rivalry and get ready to finally fight each other and find out who is better and who is more deserving of Marian’s affection. Marian wants them to cut this shit out.
They do cut it out, but only because they get a message from Sensei. This entire adventure was a trick to distract the Double Dragons. While they were gone, Nightfall had stolen the mystical dragon statue that gave them their powers.
Things are worse than just the statue being stolen. We see Sensei meditating as Billy enters. He’s more of an asshole as usual, but by the time Sensei catches on, it’s too late. “Billy” turns invisible and outfights Sensei. Sensei keeps getting back up again and again until his injuries are too severe to continue. The invisible warrior reveals her true form as Stelth, a woman wearing only a gold codpiece and floating pixels.
Really. It’s not as apparent in this pic, but she’s definitely flying free up there. For her sake, it better not be winter.
The Lee brothers barge in too late and find Sensei on the floor, dying. With the last of his energy, he gives a speech about the lineage of the Dragon Force. He was meant to teach them all of its abilities, but it seems that won’t happen. Perhaps, if they can meet their true potential, they can break what are believed to be the limits of the Dragon Force’s power. He begs Marian to keep an eye on his grandsons, as they’ll need her friendship. For a second, Billy silently reacts to this bombshell that Sensei is their grandfather. He doesn’t press further as Sensei mentions his love for all three of them and perishes.
Later on, Marian brings in another piece of street trash to jail. Jimmy enters the precinct and says he needs to talk to her. Outside, Jimmy begins to pour his heart out over the death of Sensei. Once Marian hugs him, Jimmy kisses her. Marian pulls away, not agreeing with what they’re doing. Jimmy then uncharacteristically slugs her in the face and knocks her out.
Under the guise of Marian, Stelth joins Billy and Jimmy at the cemetery. With her bitchiness, it doesn’t take long for Billy to figure out that she’s Stelth. Stelth introduces an army of punks who are more than happy to know that the Double Dragons are powerless. The Lees are still expert martial artists, so they’re able to fend them off. They really went the distance with these goons. Rather than just go with a bunch of generic punks, we get a handful of distinct bad guys that come off as more futuristic extras from the Warriors. Guys in aviator caps, guys with Viking hats and capes, albinos and even a dude running around in a loincloth.
Suddenly, the brothers’ power begins to reinvigorate. We see that elsewhere, Nightfall’s attempt to steal the Dragon Force from his stolen statue isn’t working. It rejects him and leaves his body. Now the Double Dragons are getting a noticeable power boost, letting them turn the tide in their big brawl.
Feeling desperate, Stelth uses her powers on all the cannon fodder thugs. She morphs their appearances so that they all look exactly like Billy and Jimmy. Despite the confusion, the heroes fight on. The battle goes on for three hours, but at the end, Billy and Jimmy stand triumphant.
You’d think that would be a good thing, but not totally. You see, Billy and Jimmy aren’t very trusting at the moment.
“Hey, ‘Jimmy’! The odds of my brother and I both surviving that fight without our powers is practically nil.”
“Then you must be an imposter. Perhaps you are Stelth, herself.”
“Just the kind of thing I’d expect her to say.”
Due to the nuttiness with Nightfall and the dragon statue, the Double Dragons transform into their armor forms. They continue to think that the other is an imposter and start their fight. And what a fight. It goes on for a while and is filled with some decent banter. The two take out their taser-staffs and up the tempo. They cross their weapons so hard that for a moment, the two are knocked onto the ground.
Elsewhere, a car thief accidentally releases Marian from her trunk prison. Marian rushes off to warn the brothers.
Usually in fights like Billy vs. Jimmy, the battle would have ended during that double knockout. A lot of the time it’s an annoying copout. Thankfully, McDuffie agrees. The Lees get back up and continue until there is one winner.
Stelth turns invisible and has very little trouble smacking around the completely spent Billy Lee. She unsheathes a claw and gets ready for the kill. Instead, she gets shot through the hand. Marian appears with a smoking gun, admitting that she was going for a headshot and missed.
Hours later, the bedridden Double Dragons talk with Marian about how weird it is that they can now activate their Dragon Force powers without needing the dragon statue. On one hand, that means Nightfall doesn’t control the power anymore. But if he doesn’t, who does?
Back to Nightfall, he is frustrated that he can’t absorb the Dragon Force energies. The dragon statue animates, swats Nightfall away with its tail and flies into the night.
“There is a truism about power. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was one of Sensei’s first lessons to the brothers. ‘Power must be controlled, or it will destroy him who wields it.’ Double Dragon no longer controls this power.”
At a park in Oligopolis, a couple’s romantic stroll is put to an end by some of the same punks that gave Billy and Jimmy a hard time back in issue #2. They start mugging the two innocents – not for the money, but for the fun of it – until a very large dragon lands nearby. The dragon claws and kills the gang with little effort. It intensely stares down the innocent victims for a moment before flying off to confront more evil.
Somewhere else, there is an older man in lotus position, meditating over the events currently going on. Upon realization of what’s up with the animated dragon statue, the man snaps out of his meditated state.
Hm. You know, this guy looks familiar. I know I’ve seen him somewhere before. I’ll ponder that later.
Marian pinpoints where the dragon has been sighted in the city. All the areas are known for high amounts of crime. Jimmy seems fine with it. He thinks that he and Billy are unworthy of the power (which Billy immediately disagrees with) and that maybe it’s better that the dragon fights evil without being poisoned by their failings. Marian yells back that the dragon is also without Jimmy’s conscience. It’s murdering people and may move onto killing the innocent. Anything that happens is on Billy and Jimmy’s heads and it’s their responsibility to deal with it. The brothers shrug and decide she’s right.
The three go back to the Double Dragon headquarters and board their newly-paid-for Dragon Wing plane. This scene has “hopeful action figure deal” written all over it. Flying around, they find that the dragon’s path of destruction is leading towards the state penitentiary. Makes sense, since where else are you going to find so many criminals?
Marian takes over the controls despite the fact that she just saw the plane for the first time five minutes ago. Getting their weapons in order, Jimmy brings up that there isn’t much reason they should expect to succeed here when the police are failing and they are without the Dragon Force. Billy accepts his impending death anyway and they go into it gung-ho.
The Double Dragons are easily swatted away despite their best efforts. The dragon flies into the sky, where Marian and the Dragon Wing are waiting for it. A series of missiles send it to the ground. For a second, the brothers think they’ve won at the cost of forever losing their powers. Instead, the charred dragon rises.
Billy asks, “What’ll it take to stop it?”
“A lot less than you’ve been using, but maybe more than you’ve got.”
The Lee brothers turn around to see the older man from earlier in the issue. Jimmy asks, “Who…?”
“The name’s Stan. How long have you two clowns held the Dragon Force, anyway? No time for this right now. You don’t control power with power, true believers. You control the power with spirit.”
Wait… what did he just call them? Did he just say his name is…? No. Oh, hell no. They wouldn’t…
Jimmy figures out what he means. The brothers clasp their hands together and draw the energy from the dragon into themselves. Though it’s a tremendous strain, they absorb the entire Dragon Force and transform the empty dragon into a crumbling statue. Marian arrives and says how proud she is of Billy and Jimmy. Jimmy notes that they wouldn’t have been able to do it without Stan’s help, but wonders how Stan knew about the Dragon Force.
Goddamn it, McDuffie! You introduced Stan Lee as a character and made him the father of the Double Dragons?! What the hell?! Shame on you, man.
Speaking of McDuffie, this would be his final issue. For one reason or another, he was taken off Double Dragon and replaced with the team of Tom Brevoort and Mike Kanterovich. Not bad.
Before getting destroyed, that dragon statue did cause a lot of damage to that prison, so there are a lot of crazy prisoners rioting and trying to make a break for it. Luckily, we have two super martial artists, a skilled cop and the creator of Dr. Doom there to stop them. If you’ve ever wanted to see Stan Lee go black belt on a bunch of convicts, are you in for a treat!
If you think that’s impressive, Jack Kirby could kill a man with a knife to the skull from fifty yards.
Backup arrives and tells the criminals that can still walk to get back to their cells. Jimmy is pretty cool with Stan, but Billy doesn’t trust him. Especially that whole, “I’m your dad! Excelsior!” thing. Me, I don’t trust him because he kicked Major Victory off that Sci-Fi reality show before Fat Momma. Really, what the hell was that about?
Stan takes his kids and Marian back to Double Dragon headquarters so he can tell them the true backstory of the brothers and their power. He pulls out an ancient book that has the history of the Dragon Force within its pages. In ancient times, chaos and darkness ruled the land. A young man named Yan sought out the means to protect his people. He came across a mighty dragon guarding a great power. The dragon considered Yan a trespasser and they battled. Yan squeaked out a victory and had the dragon at his mercy. He allowed the dragon to live, which showed his worthiness to wield the Dragon Force.
Yan led his villagers to defeat their oppressors and there was a time of peace. Yan knew that darkness could not be destroyed, but merely pushed back, so he had to keep it going for the next generation. Worthy successors would inherit the power and protect the people of their times. One of these successors was Miranda, the daughter of Ch’ien Kuai. We and the Double Dragons know him as “Sensei”.
Stan and his good friend Shinichi would become pupils of Ch’ien Kuai. Though they didn’t wield the Dragon Force, they still followed Miranda into battle when needed. The four of them were like a tightly-knit family.
Outstanding contrast right there.
Stan and Shinichi were both after Miranda’s heart and, as you already know, Stan won out. Shinichi became a bit corrupt and tried to learn some of the black arts in hopes of winning Miranda’s attentions. It didn’t work and on Stan and Miranda’s wedding day, Shinichi stormed off and dedicated himself to evil and reading strictly DC.
He studied more and more and grew more sinister. He prepared to use his darkness abilities to steal the heart from Marian and I guess her powers. He did this while she was in childbirth. There she was, pushing out her twins, when these black tentacles came out of nowhere and jumped into her mouth. Agonizing and knowing she was going to die, she transferred her Dragon Force powers into her children and her father. Stan and Ch’ien took a second to get their bearings and talk about the prophecy of the two who are one before going on their mission of vengeance.
Upon finding that Shinichi was behind it all, Stan went after him, but received the beating of a lifetime. Ch’ien was underestimated and took Shinichi apart. Filled with hatred, Ch’ien gave into his own darkness for just a second and killed Shinichi. Days later, he told Stan that because of his actions, he was unworthy to wield the Dragon Force. He wanted Stan to take it. Stan argued that the Dragon Force has taken everything from him, so he wants no part of it. Ch’ien denounced his lineage out of his own disgrace and from there called himself Sensei. He created the dragon statue and placed his power within it until a worthy successor could be found.
Even though Stan’s done telling the story, we find that there is more to it. Elsewhere, Nightfall is looking on. He goes over Shinichi’s supposed death. After Stan and Ch’ien left his body, darkness spewed from his wounds and transformed him into Nightfall. The Lee brothers’ big enemy is their father’s former best friend and the murderer of their mother. Finally, some development on that angle.
That’s a good amount of backstory, but it’s good stuff. Especially when you compare it to the love triangle between Billy, Jimmy and Marian. If this series went longer than six issues, I wonder if they would have done something based on the first NES game, where Jimmy fulfills the Shinichi role.
Nightfall sends henchmen Undertaker and Overthrow to the Lees’ home with a bunch of ninjas. The lot of them fight our four heroes. Hey, want to see Stan Lee beat up ninjas?
Undertaker and Overthrow are both badly designed and are both badly beaten up. The ninjas scramble and the heroes realize that something bad is coming. They jump out the window just in time for the whole place to go up in flames. Waiting for them through the smoke is Nightfall. For once we see his true form through the blackness. He looks like a skeleton covered with entrails made of bone. Metal.
In his hand, he holds an orb. Within the orb is the soul of Miranda Lee.
Okay, turns out that was just a hologram of Nightfall. Which is probably for the better, considering our heroes are too busy fighting an army of ninjas and street punks. Billy is all right taking his frustrations out on these idiots, which pisses off Stan. Random violence on pawns isn’t going to solve anything. They need to find Nightfall and end this tonight.
Marian calls for back-up, but it seems Nightfall has every petty thug on the street causing trouble. Police forces are spread thin due to riots all over. With no other choice, the guys get on their motorcycles and get the hell out of there. To hone in on Nightfall’s evil, the two clasp their hands together and turn on their Dragon Force powers while riding their bikes side-by-side. Very cool.
They get to Nightfall’s hideout, but Jimmy doesn’t want to go in. There are too many people looting in the area that he just feels the need to dispense justice. Stan tells him to get over it and save his goddamn mother’s soul or he’ll bore him to death with stories of how he and Jack came up with the original Avengers line-up.
Remember all those colorful henchmen that have shown up over the course of the story for one scene only to never be mentioned again? Time for some closure.
The Lee brothers kick all sorts of evil ass here, with Marian again shooting Stelth in the hand. They then barge in on Nightfall and take the fight to him. Billy tries his electric nunchucks, Jimmy uses his blinding throwing stars, Marian her gun and Stan tries reason. None of it comes close to affecting Nightfall. He knocks out Marian and reveals that he waited for Stan to return to Oligopolis to finish off his ascent into ruler of the city.
The brothers remember that they’re supposed to be more powerful as a likeminded duo and join together yet again.
Taking the full force of their double punch, Nightfall simply asks, “Are you quite finished?” before slapping them to the floor.
Billy sees the orb holding his mother’s soul and thinks back to what Stan told them issues earlier. You don’t fight power with power, but with spirit. The Double Dragons punch the orb and set their mother’s spirit free. She possesses Marian’s unconscious body and joins the battle. The three work as one and act not to destroy Nightfall, but to contain him. They create some kind of energy web around the villain and close it in on him. He and his energies are imprisoned in a new dragon statue. Good for him.
Stan tells Miranda that if he knew about the soul-imprisoned-in-an-orb thing, he would have come sooner. She is cool with it, since it means she can both see that her sons have grown strong and she can say goodbye to them all. Her soul leaves Marian’s body and ascends to the heavens.
With things all wrapped up (other than all those looters and rioters running amok), Stan suggests they relocate their new dragon statue to Double Dragon headquarters for safe-keeping. Billy reminds him that their home has been destroyed. Jimmy suggests that Billy and Stan can go rebuild it so that he and Marian can share some quality time.
And that ends that. Even with McDuffie’s name on this, I went into this comic headfirst, expecting third-degree burns to the eyes due to how bad it would be. The joke’s on me because I really enjoyed the hell out of it. The art, the characters, the dialogue and most of the plot came off real well. Even with alternating writers and early cancellation, I can’t think of any blatant loose ends.
Yes, sure, it doesn’t have much to do with the story from the game. Then again, the story of the game isn’t all that exciting. Too street level and down to earth, I suppose. Getting past that, it’s a nice, forgotten gem. It feels a lot like an early 90’s version of the current Iron Fist run. I could run down the parallels, but I’ve been overdoing that shtick lately.
But we can all agree that it’s ten times better than this piece of crap. I mean, come on! Double Dragon 1 had one of the all-time best videogame theme songs ever and the best you can come up with is that?!