- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital videodiscs (compatible with DVD-ROM and Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Robot Chicken: Season 4 (Warner Home Video, not rated, $29.98) - If your idea of a good laugh is seeing Dick Cheney in Iron Man’s first armor suit blasting terrorists, He-Man decapitated by his partying doppelganger and a Smurf in digestive distress, have I got a show for you.

Cartoon Network’s popular, mature Adult Swim series returned for its fourth season last year, and this pair of DVDs collects all 20 episodes.

Devolving the art of stop-motion animation while brutalizing defenseless action figures, Seth Green and Matthew Seinrich’s band of model-making lunatics mock nearly every taboo in popular culture through bite-sized skits.

Among the moments, the Incredible Hulk deals with purple-pants supply issues, Santa Claus battles to the death against Thor, the Batmobile is downsized to a Bat pogo stick, John Connor embraces his new female Terminator, and members of COBRA mock their Commander’s speech impediment while he orders fast food.

Doll collectors and cartoon and comic-book fans get a steady diet of profanity-laced, sophomoric shenanigans starring everyone from the Lone Ranger, Ronald Moore, the Green Arrow and Dr. Manhattan to Superman, Batman, the Joker and Optimus Prime.

A cavalcade of celebrities lend their voices, including Seth MacFarlane, Rachel Leigh Cook, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Billy Dee Williams, David Hasselhoff and Sarah Michelle Gellar, enhancing the fun.

Best extras: Mr. Green and Mr. Seinrich offer an optional video commentary track (click when you see the chicken silhouette) on the episode “Help.” Yeah, those guys are nuts.

I also liked the video blog (a choice of five) featuring recording sessions with some of the stars. Former “Battlestar Galactica” star Katee Sackhoff has quite the potty mouth, by the way.

Also, get ready for more than 40 deleted animatics - basically storyboards that were never realized into finished animations - that go off on an incredible variety of twisted pop-culture moments, most of which are too mature to discuss.

Read all about it:Robot Chicken‘s” roots lie in a feature of Wizard Entertainment’s ToyFare magazine. Every month, Twisted ToyFare Theatre offers action figures interacting, with dialogue bubbles, in a comic-book-panel layout. Purchase Twisted ToyFare Theatre: 10th Anniversary Collection ($29.99) for 256 full-color immersions into the silliness.

Family Guy: Something, Something, Something Dark Side (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, not rated, $29.99) - A galaxy far, far away got ripped, yet again, by Seth MacFarlane and his merry band of “Family Guy” stalwarts last year in a humorous homage to “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”

Recently available on a single Blu-ray disc, the extended “Family Guy” episode finds members of the Griffin clan whisked into the roles of “Star Wars” legends, decimating the Skywalker canon.

Son Chris is Luke Skywalker, papa Peter is Han Solo, mama Lois is Princess Leia - you get the idea, and the flow of potty humor, non-sequitur sight gags and Juicy Fruit commercial rip-offs begins.

We get the Cookie Wampa Monster, Rodney Dangerfield on Hoth, an intestinal worm launcher that takes down an Imperial Walker and Han Solo taking the “moon position” - and I don’t mean the moon of Endor - as he is encased in carbonite.

Unfortunately, the reverence Mr. MacFarlane and his creative team have for the source material hurts their ability to fully unleash their merciless style of humor. Too often, the laughs are overshadowed by John Williams’ powerful score, really gorgeous animated renditions of the spaceships, and scenes and dialogue very close to the real movie.

If you want to enjoy some serious Skywalker clan-skewering, look to “Robot Chicken: Star Wars - Episode II” (Warner Home Video, $19.98) and get ready to really bust a gut.

Best extras: An optional commentary track is much funnier than the episode. It finds Mr. MacFarlane, director Dominic Polcino, writer Kirker Butler, executive producers Mark Hentemann and David A. Goodman and a troublemaking Seth Green sitting in room together, drinking tequila and busting on each other while discussing the final product.

I also like the “Family Guy Fact-Ups” extra. Pop-up boxes constantly appear over the main feature and offer “educational” nuggets, such as, “Tauntauns are snow lizards indigenous to Hoth,” “The ICEE company licensed the Slurpee to 7-Eleven in 1967” and “Jennifer Garner has very prominent ears.”

Note of annoyance: Inexplicably, Mr. MacFarlane does nothing to satisfy the Blu-ray owner enjoying his new 75-inch flat-screen television. The show arrives in full-screen format, not widescreen (what!?!) and it looks only slightly better than its DVD equivalent.

Read all about it: Devil’s Due Publishing offered three 48-page volumes of “Family Guy” sequential-art stories back in 2006. Find a well-stocked comic-book shop or online store to choose from Book 1: 100 Ways to Kill Lois, Book 2: Peter Griffin’s Guide to Parenting, and Book 3: Books Don’t Taste Very Good ($6.95 each).

Witchblade: The Complete Series, (Funimation Entertainment, rated: TV-MA, $79.98) - No, it’s not the live-action TNT series starring Yancy Butler as Sara Pezzini, but the Gonzo studio anime cartoon version that gets Blu-ray treatment and reveals the Japanese side of Top Cow Productions’ famed comic-book character.

A three-disc set offers all 24 episodes of the series in beautiful high definition and adds a generous supply of extras devoted to the source material.

This version of “Witchblade” is set in 22nd-century Tokyo and stars single mother Masane Amaha, who must take care of her 6-year-old daughter, Rihoko, while occasionally transforming into a scantily clad, supernatural superhero wielding an ancient gauntlet.

Well, the 6-year-old ends up taking care of the mom most of the time, while Masane finds herself in a complicated struggle with a corporate war machine and government agency for the Witchblade’s power.

The story of a mother willing to sacrifice all to save her daughter eventually shines through in measured action that mixes enough drama, complex characters and humor to balance the ridiculously gratuitous violence. The distracting, overtly “bad girl” design of the female warrior costumes will keep adolescent males on the edge of their seats.

Best extras: Of the three hours or so of bonus materials, which include interviews with the Japanese cast, fans will most appreciate the three-part documentary on the “Witchblade” franchise.

In roughly 60 minutes, comic-book series creators Marc Silvestri, David Wohl and Brian Haberlin, along with other Top Cow staff, discuss the origins of the character (going back to 1995), her growth and her evolution to multiple media formats, including the animated series.

Read all about it: Top Cow’s hardcover Witchblade Compendium ($99.99) compiles the first 50 issues of the comic-book series, which stars the magical penciling of the late Michael Turner. Or try the Witchblade Takeru Manga Collection (Top Cow and Bandai Entertainment, $24.99), featuring decidedly mature Japanese stylings and prose crafted by anime series writer Yasuko Kobayashi.

* Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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