Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Final Plan of the Absorbing Man!

Sure, sure--we've all seen Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man, get his ball and chain handed to him despite the power he was given by Loki, the God of Mischief, to absorb and take the form of any material or properties he wishes. More than once he's come up against Thor (and even Odin himself)--and yes, you'd think being on more than equal footing with the God of Thunder would give Creel the edge he needed to claim victory. Yet Creel has always unwittingly brought about his own defeat--but how? If he absorbs the power of Thor's hammer, what's keeping him from taking his victory lap with that kind of might at his disposal?

By the time of their fourth meeting, Creel has reached the point of being pretty tired of getting walloped by Thor--and it looks like he's finally wised up as far as sticking to a game plan.

Of course, if we had a nickel for every time a villain made a "this time it's gonna be different" speech, we'd be sipping piña coladas at the Club Med of our choice and tipping outrageously. But let's see what Creel's plan is before we start packing our bags, because it looks like he means business this time.

Wait a minute--that's the plan? Haven't we been to this party before?

(Thor doesn't seem to think so.)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rise Of An Empress!

Before the attack of Galactus destroyed the Skrull throneworld and threw the ruling hierarchy of the Skrulls into chaos, the Skrull Empire was ruled by the iron fist of Dorrek. Unfortunately for Dorrek, he already had his own power struggle brewing, one that came to a head as he attacked the interconnected world of Xandar--dissension which sprung not from an ambitious member of the military, but from his own wife, R'klll, who became a thorn in his side and undercut his authority, humiliating him at every opportunity. And given the unexpected and effective resistance of Xandar, R'klll had a number of opportunities to assert herself, with blunt criticism of Dorrek's decisions that put at risk his standing with his soldiers.

As we can see, Dorrek, an aggressive emperor who has reined in the likes of the Super-Skrull, isn't one to suffer R'klll's insolence for long; in fact, it's likely his preoccupation with both Xandar and the Fantastic Four has kept him from turning his focus to her, for the time being. But with the Skrulls, plotting to overthrow your enemies often cuts both ways--and as the situation with the FF results in their escape from the throneworld, we discover that R'klll has plans, and ambitions, of her own.

R'klll would probably do well to keep in mind that a man who attained power by murdering the father of his prospective bride isn't going to be kept at bay by the stinging words of his wife for long. Yet when the war with Xandar escalates to such a degree that Dorrek is forced to consider withdrawing from close proximity to the battle, R'klll sees the perfect opportunity to make her bid for power.

We never learn the extent of R'klll's success or failure in the war against Xandar. Since Xandar would repel the Skrulls and continue on (at least for a time), we can assume that she eventually withdrew her forces, perhaps in an effort not to squander her political capital in what was proving to be a fruitless campaign. Yet she appeared to later establish herself as impressive and imposing an empress as Lilandra of the Shi'ar when involved in interstellar affairs.

(Though it's clear Lilandra isn't about to brook interference from anyone in a Shi'ar matter.)

It turned out that the enmity between the Kree and Skrull liaisons led to an opportunity for R'klll to broker a solution with the Kree Supreme Intelligence to end the continuing Kree-Skrull war, which had to be a feather in her cap--er, crown.

It's unclear how long R'klll's reign lasted; given time, she may or may not have turned her attention to Earth to pursue its conquest. With a truce now in effect between the Skrulls and the Kree, there would be no strategic point to it; but a spy planted in FF headquarters during Dorrek's time as Emperor had nevertheless provided an invaluable advantage too tempting to ignore for long.

Regardless, R'klll's time was fated to run out when the arrival of Galactus ended her reign, as well as the dominance of the Skrulls for some time to come. (For what it's worth, at least it appears she never had to be concerned about an assassination attempt from her pacifist daughter, Anelle.)

One last commendable note regarding R'klll--we can probably assume that Dorrek would have kept a contingency ship prepped for launch and made sure he was witnessing the throneworld's destruction from a safe distance.  (Though small comfort to the ruling family at this point!)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Monsters, Unleashed

The Legion of Monsters in comic book form probably seemed like a great idea on paper--gathering Marvel's stable of monstrous characters from the mid-1970s under one eye-catching masthead, thereby attracting readers who were fans of any one of them while adding on the novelty of featuring all of them in the same story. The concept likely got its inspiration from a black-and-white one-shot (or what turned out to be a one-shot) published five months earlier:

Yet while that magazine gave the appearance that Dracula was sending forth his "legion" to terrorize whatever innocent victims they encountered, the issue was merely a collection of individual stories featuring the Frankenstein monster, Manphibian (!), and Dracula--and never the three did meet (except to pose for a cover shot), much less join together in some nefarious objective. So the "legion" concept applied only in the broader sense of the mag featuring monsters on the loose in general, and here were separate stories of three of them.

Writer Bill Mantlo's adaptation, on the other hand, formed a story around all of the featured characters, and perhaps made a good case as to why the concept was unworkable as he envisioned it. For instance, why would monsters in the traditional horror sense work toward a common goal, or even cooperate with each other--unless, say, their individual wills were somehow being dominated by one of the group? That wouldn't be the case in Mantlo's story, and it's one reason why it degenerates into such a tangled chain of events.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Rages the Dark Phoenix!

"Jean to Phoenix to Dark Phoenix--a progression as inevitable as death."

Following the death of "Jean Grey," with the character committing suicide on the surface of the moon in order to prevent the dark nature of her power as Phoenix from bringing further death to the inhabitants of the universe, it would be about 5½ years before we'd learn what had truly happened at the point in time when Jean appeared to transform into Phoenix. During a crisis situation when Jean had been near death, the Phoenix entity confronted her, thereafter taking her form and placing her in stasis--while assuming her life for all intents and purposes with no one the wiser, not even the Phoenix itself. The revised story had been created in order to explain the return of Jean so that she could appear as a part of the new group (and book), X-Factor, comprised of the members of the original X-Men.

We've already taken a look at the events leading to the death of Phoenix as they were originally conceived by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, which at story's end allowed Jean to live while purging her of Phoenix. That story was of course reworked into what became X-Men #137, in order to have Jean fatally suffer the consequences of her actions as Phoenix. Marvel would eventually publish the original Claremont/Byrne story, 3½ years after the version which made it to X-Men #137; but almost three years earlier than the revelations of that story became known, where we learned of the original intention for Jean's fate, a story in the alternate-reality-based title What If had already managed to spill the beans in that regard.

Written by Mary Jo Duffy (one of the many letters column submission writers who would go on to writing assignments for Marvel titles) and pencilled by Jerry Bingham, "What If Phoenix Had Not Died?" takes the approach of a worst-case-scenario story, which was often the case in an issue of What If; and in so doing, sacrifices much of the characterization which you would find in Claremont's X-Men stories of the early '80s in order to leap-frog through pivotal events that see the story through from beginning to end. Duffy, to her credit, doesn't jettison that characterization altogether, instead taking a leaf from Jim Shooter's work in Secret Wars and including just enough of the style of typical X-Men interaction in order to provide a sense of familiarity. As with Shooter's effort, it doesn't make up for the difference--but for what it's worth, there is at least the apparent indication that the story takes its cue from Claremont's original concept for the fate of the Phoenix, which is either an amazing coincidence or more likely the result of a pertinent inquiry to Claremont on Duffy's part.

From that jumping-off point, Duffy's plot works reasonably well. As we learn from the Watcher, the point where this reality diverges from our own is reached during the battle on the moon between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard--and during Scott and Jean's last stand in the alternate timeline, another X-Man is left to witness the other's fall.

Here, it seems that Jean's life will again be forfeit, only this time not of her own choice. But the Shi'ar have something else in mind--indeed, it's the mind of Jean which will seal her fate.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

They're Changing... Changing!

Marvel heroes have been known for their incredible changes and transformations in their time, whether in shape, size, form, or a radical shift in appearance--some of them impressive, a few of them head-scratchers, and maybe some which fell into the "you've got to be kidding me" category. Off the top of your head, what are some of the more memorable transformations that occur to you when looking back at Marvel's characters?

As for myself:

...well, you've probably already guessed that I couldn't stop with just Gorilla Man.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Next Dracula!

When we last left Lucas Brand, former motorcycle hoodlum turned hitman turned vampire turned corpse, he had been made into one of the undead by none other than Dracula--and, as part of Dracula's night of revenge on Brand and his fellow 'cyclists, he was sent to kill his employer, Jason Faust, by making him a vampire as well. As Dracula presumed, the night didn't end well for either man. Confined to an iron lung, Faust was helpless as Brand attacked him with the vampire bite; but Faust, who had involved Brand in his voodoo slayings of former friends he felt had betrayed him, flinched during the attack and pierced with a pin a voodoo doll he'd made of Brand (as a contingency precaution), killing his attacker. But the damage was done. Faust converted to a vampire himself--but helpless to slake his thirst while confined to his iron lung.

And with the rising sun, both vampires were burned to ashes. Or so we were left to believe.

Two issues later, writer Marv Wolfman begins a lengthy sub-plot which has Brand becoming a thrall of Doctor Sun. But, how does a pile of ashes become a thrall? Or does Sun want an urn of a dead vampire sitting on his mantel?

Well, if you're to keep your sanity, you're going to have to forget a few things you've seen in the past few issues. For one thing, pay no mind to the fact that, until now, people in Tomb of Dracula could be turned into vampires in a very short amount of time (Mr. Faust, for instance, who converted before you could say "voodoo," only to die at dawn). Also put out of your mind the fact that Brand was operating as a vampire that night, even to the point of sinking his fangs into his first victim--as well as the fact that he died again, when Faust stabbed his voodoo likeness, and was subsequently burned to a crisp at the same time Faust was.

Because if you try and reconcile all of that with Wolfman's new storyline for Brand--which begins with Sun's subordinates instead recovering Brand's body from the morgue and assessing his status--you'll probably end up flailing about in utter confusion.

Apparently, according to Wolfman's later narrative, Brand was "not fully reborn" as a vampire, an "explanation" which practically begs you as a reader to just accept that rationale and move on--because we've seen Brand certainly kill his victim like one, and giving Faust a nice set of fangs of his own in the process. In addition, in order for Brand to have avoided sharing Faust's fate at dawn, the city's morgue pickup men would have had to have been waiting outside of Faust's home for no particular reason, springing into action like the Keystone Cops to retrieve Brand and whisk him to the safety of a cold slab--taking the time first to dislodge the pin from the voodoo doll which had killed him, since London morgue attendants have undoubtedly run into instances of voodoo killings before.

Suffice to say that Brand's fate has been reset, and he's now a vampire-in-training in Sun's custody. But what does Sun want him for? Not even Brand knows that yet--and it looks like he's going to have to prove himself to Sun before finding out.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Night For Revenge!

We may never know who coined the phrase, "Payback's a bitch"--but few are more proficient in its application than Count Dracula, who once found himself weakened from a blood transfusion procedure and fell victim to, of all things, a mugging. Of course, his pride demanded that Dracula spin the humiliating event so that it would have a somewhat more dignified outcome.

It turns out, however, that our biker gang is involved in more than just raising hell and preying on the weak--though the gang's ringleader, Lucas Brand, has found a more sophisticated means of doing the latter.

Dracula might find this scene amusing--for as long as these men had to live, that is.

Friday, October 2, 2015

From The Ashes Rises... Jean Grey!?

Dissension In The Ranks

When resentments and disagreements boil over,
even allies can turn against each other in fierce battle that can bring the house down.

(And often does!)


Cyclops and Phoenix

It's probably more accurate to say that this disagreement is between Cyclops and Jean Grey--though this dispute has reached its boiling point because Cyclops is convinced otherwise!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

More Bang For Your Buck--At Least On Paper

Marvel Fanfare, the 1982-91 anthology series, was first described on the Bullpen Bulletins page as "Comics the way you always dreamed they'd be presented--with no ads, in vivid colors, on slick, high-quality paper." That really did little to give you an idea of just what kind of comic you're going to be reading--but given its $1.25 price tag, over twice the amount you'd pay for a regularly published Marvel comic, your expectations would understandably be high. Yet the reality was that your money was paying for the high-quality paper, more detailed coloring, and of course the lack of advertising in the book--not necessarily for story and artwork that were above the norm. I don't know of any comics reader who browses the store racks while breaking down cover price allocations in their head in such a manner, or any manner--which may help to explain why "Marvel Fanfare," despite its elevated production values, met with relatively little fanfare.

The book published new stories (either fresh from the drawing board or non-released inventory material) featuring both high-profile and under-the-radar characters--a description which could also be applied to the wide array of writers and artists which Editor Al Milgrom brought aboard to contribute and to showcase their work. Yet it was a rare day when you'd put down a Marvel Fanfare issue and feel as if you'd just read a future classic or an otherwise exceptional piece of comics work. On the other hand, if you were looking for something a little more out of the ordinary featuring Marvel characters, you would likely have been pleased by the format of the series.

The original volume of Marvel Fanfare lasted 60 issues, its almost 10-year run explained by its bi-monthly publication schedule (on occasion even taking several months to release an issue). Five years after its initial run ended, the title would receive another opportunity to catch on with readers, this time at a substantially reduced price than comparable titles on the sales rack and produced on less expensive paper. Published monthly, the book closed shop after just six issues.

If nothing else, Marvel Fanfare can be remembered for some work that was off the beaten path from that which appeared elsewhere in Marvel publications. (Picture an entire issue by Barry Smith featuring the Thing falling victim to an elaborate April Fool's Day prank by the Torch, for instance.) Following are a few of the more eye-catching covers from the series, with work by Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Byrne, and John Buscema--as well as a Spider-Man/Silver Surfer insert by Byrne.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Clash Of The Crime Lords!

It's always a lousy situation when two rival crime lords are interested in claiming the same turf--lousy for them, but top-notch entertainment for comics readers who are interesting in seeing which tough-talking villain has the smarts and the strength to prevail over the other. One such "gang war" that comes to mind is the late-1972 clash between Otto Octavius (a/k/a Dr. Octopus--"Doc Ock" to his friends and wise-cracking enemies) and Hammerhead, the new thug in town who's literally muscling in on New York City at the same time that Ock is staking his own claim on the territory.

When these two butt heads, they clearly have different ways of conducting their affairs in terms of tactics and weaponry. Ock, not surprisingly, makes use of sophisticated technology across the board, whether it's employed through surveillance, or communications, or weapons; while Hammerhead, a strict follower of the methods and style of late-1920s gangsters, relies on old-style weaponry and fear-inducing hits to build both his reputation and his power base. Initially, both men are focused on making strikes against each other in order to remove their threat as quickly as possible--and both have their share of setbacks as well as inroads.

The first round of their clash must go to Ock--who's walking into a canny trap laid by Hammerhead, but winds up turning the tables beautifully on his assassins.

(You have to admire a villain who has the boldness to confiscate the Kingpin's headquarters and equipment to further his own ends.)

Later, Ock must deal with the interfering Spider-Man, who's unfortunately caught in the middle of this war. Ock shrewdly ends up saving Spider-Man from being killed by Hammerhead, in order to gain an unwitting ally who might prove useful against his gangster-rival--and in the process, the war between Ock and Hammerhead explodes into the open and escalates.

Ock then retreats to another base of operations in Westchester where he employs May Parker as a housekeeper, further complicating Spider-Man's efforts to bring down both Ock and Hammerhead. Hammerhead, however, has put a "tail" on Ock and learns of his location, and immediately invades the property in force. Naturally, the taunts between both men fly as thickly through the air as the bullets laid down by Hammerhead's men.

Ock then retreats to a "safe room," while bringing his own armed men and technology into play to deal with Hammerhead's ill-prepared forces.

With Spider-Man on the premises, and the relentless Hammerhead still a threat, Ock decides to withdraw rather than trust in his men to turn the tide. Of course if Ock had joined the fray after deploying his men, who knows how this encounter might have turned out? Suffice to say that Ock inevitably finds that he has his hands--er, arms full with the attack of Hammerhead.

With Ock easily a match for Spider-Man, my money would be on Ock to come out on top in this fight. But it looks like Hammerhead is flanked by enough men (and with enough bullets) to send Ock into retreat.

Ironically, neither of these men comes out of this with their forces intact so as to declare victory over the other. Ock is in police custody (thanks to his run-in with a very angry Spider-Man), while Hammerhead is on the run and forced to lay low. Yet the two would clash again, with explosive results.

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