Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Legacy of Evil: The Return of the Black Knight!

My first exposure to Nathan Garrett, the villainous Black Knight, was in the pages of The Avengers, where he was a member of the original Masters of Evil. For some reason, I'd thought he was one and the same with Sir Percy, the Golden Age Black Knight who was getting new exposure in the (partial) reprint mag I was picking up at the time, Marvel Super-Heroes. I couldn't understand why the two characters were written so differently--but it didn't take long for me to lose interest in Sir Percy in favor of his more contemporary and dangerous counterpart:

The situation was muddied even more for me when the third Black Knight, Dane Whitman, would hold brazier-lit conversations with Sir Percy, whom I'd first assumed was the Black Knight who was part of Zemo's group. Why, I wondered, was this Black Knight helping Whitman, who fought on the side of the law? But once I'd read a later Avengers story that showed Garrett, on his death bed, admitting to Whitman that his life as a criminal had been a mistake, I was able to make a distinction between Garrett and the more noble shade of Sir Percy, who was revealed to be Whitman's ancestor in the new Black Knight's showcase story in Marvel Super-Heroes.

It took me some time to work my way backwards and find true perspective on Garrett, who, like the Melter and the Radioactive Man, made his initial appearance in one of the titles where an Avenger first got their feet wet before moving on--in this case, Tales To Astonish, which was at the time headlining Giant-Man:

So just how did Nathan Garrett start his life of crime--and where the heck did he get a winged horse?

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Human Torch vs. Ground Zero

Yikes! Things look dire for the Human Torch, after a battle with the Eel leaves him with a miniature radioactive atomic pile to deal with!

Otherwise known as (what else?) "Project X," the miniature "atomic pile" (machinery which would later become better known as a nuclear reactor) was developed by famous inventor Charles Lawson, who rigged its satchel with a safeguard that the Eel unfortunately didn't consider in his theft of the device:

Once the Torch defeats the Eel, he has the same problem the Eel did--the imminent detonation of a deadly atomic blast, which his flame molecules have already alerted him to. (Wait--so his flame molecules are like a fiery spider-sense?) We've already seen the bomb go off--so the surrounding area is likely toast (and charred toast, at that), unless the Torch's desperate plan succeeds. But what's he doing all the way up in the stratosphere? Let's rejoin him just after the crucial moment and find out:

Unknown to Johnny, though, the powerful blast has blown open the door to another case of:

The place to probably start dissecting Johnny's totally whack plan is his decision to zoom into the stratosphere to initiate it--a minimum altitude of 33,000 feet. Let's first assume that Johnny even made it to the stratosphere.  That means that Johnny will have to exert his power downward 33,000 feet (assuming he didn't zoom higher!) in order to catch the blast before it had a chance to scorch the surrounding area. To give you an idea of what kind of distance we're talking about here, look up in the sky and see if you can imagine where the ozone layer is--then raise your sights another 10km. Or have a look at the space shuttle Endeavour as it hovers near the upper limit of the stratosphere (about 50km):

It should go without saying that the oxygen Johnny needs to sustain his flame (to say nothing of remaining alive) would have been exhausted well before reaching the stratosphere.

But this is mostly nitpicking. If I were a teenager, and I had a split-second to come up with a plan for dealing with the repercussions of an atomic blast--one that involved soaring to a great height--"stratosphere" is probably the word that would have first come to mind for me, as well. Suffice to say that Johnny is heading to a really high altitude.

That leaves us with the second part of his plan. Let's say for the sake of absolute LUNACY argument that Johnny can extend his power that far, that he can absorb the magnitude of heat and radiation released by an atomic explosion, that he can force the blast to radiate upward rather than outward across the land. If by some lapse of reasoning we accept all of that, then he would surely have done the same thing when the rest of the Fantastic Four was in danger from the detonation of a Q-bomb that the Wizard was going to use to destroy them. But in both cases the question would persist: How is this kid still alive? This little stunt would be better suited to X-Ray of the U-Foes, and even his chances would be 50-50.

After absorbing the full force of the atomic explosion, not only has Johnny avoided his skin being instantly sheared from his bones, but he also has plenty of power left to reach super-nova level force and expel the harmful forces at a safe altitude:

(Whoops--guess it was the stratosphere, after all.)

And as Johnny's life hung in the balance, it fell to Reed to dust off a half-completed project and work out its bugs in time to pull Johnny back from the brink of death:

Fear not, all's well that ends well for Johnny "Atomic Pile" Storm, whose power made a mockery of science but whose fellow residents near Ground Zero aren't complaining.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Partners In Crime(fighting)

From the double-sized Captain America #350, where Steve Rogers put aside his identity as "The Captain" and reclaimed his Captain America uniform and title from John Walker, here's an interesting look at a few bonus pin-ups that bring us up to speed on the characters we've seen in play up to that point.

First, a collection of men who, like Walker, stood in for the good Captain:

It seems clear that artist Tom Morgan wants to avoid a lineup of six men all dressed as Captain America--but depicting the 1950s Cap in his brainwashed Nazi zealot guise as the Grand Director perhaps kept this pin-up from a few walls.

Next, we learn that Steve really needs to get out more, if we're going by this pin-up that scrapes together the women he's been involved with--a collection which includes a woman who simply had Cap over as a dinner guest, as well as, of all people, the Viper:

(Jeez, Cap, talk about sleeping with the enemy!)

Finally, artist John Buscema brings together all of Cap's former partners:

Despite the implication of the word "partner" as someone who comes aboard long-term and battles with you regularly, it's funny how Cap has gone through a number of partners and nevertheless spent the bulk of his appearances in comics flying solo. Perhaps only the Avengers can be considered Cap's partners, at least in a semi-regular sense, with the special ops assignments of WWII that had Bucky attached to him no longer a factor in Steve Rogers' life. (Though perhaps S.H.I.E.L.D. would beg to differ!)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cry Hulk! Cry Havok!

Judging by the ruins of this splash page, the first real test of the new Hulkbuster Base as a research/containment facility for the incredible Hulk is a washout:

The Hulk has just been in a pitched battle with a being called the Inheritor, a failed experiment of the High Evolutionary--and now, in the sub-levels of the base where radiation-draining equipment ended the Inheritor's rampage, the Hulk attempts to evade the armed forces which seek to recapture him. And more than that--he seeks his freedom!

News, however, travels fast, whether good or bad--and when it concerns Congressional funding for an armed base which botches the job it was created for, the news is looking worse by the minute:

Yet the Hulk cares about the allocation of taxpayer funds about as much as he does about the unfortunate ant that happens to find itself beneath his foot as he comes crashing back to Earth after one of his mile-devouring leaps. Especially this day, when he believes he's spotted his lost love, Jarella, in the distance and leaps to intercept her--and the ants, in this case, being a motorcycle gang whose members picked the wrong place and the wrong time to harass Lorna Dane of the X-Men:

With the Hulk frantically searching for the woman whose green hair reminds him of Jarella, Lorna continues on foot to meet with the man she travelled here to find--Alex Summers, otherwise known as Havok, who has isolated himself in this patch of desert in order to keep his destructive power in check. Power which only needs the woman he loves placed in harm's way to be unleashed:

The reunion is short, with Alex refusing to accompany Lorna back to the X-Men in order to begin training to control his power. And when Lorna races from the hovel in tears, a certain man-monster finally arrives and misinterprets the scene. With Lorna now in potential danger, Alex has all the incentive he needs to re-don his special suit which the man known as Havok needs so that he can hopefully avoid living up to his name:

It doesn't make matters any easier when the Hulk realizes that Lorna is not Jarella--nor when he spots an Army jeep in the vicinity and believes that Lorna may be in collusion with the soldiers who always hound him. It's a challenge of restraint for the Hulk--as well as a baptism of fire for Havok.

At this point, it's easy for any of us to advise Alex on what he did wrong in trying to put a lid on this situation before it got out of hand. It's clear he earnestly wanted to avoid a fight; however, when mixing your earnest words with insulting name-calling and challenges which might as well have ended with "...or else!", the Hulk is only going to react one way. So does anyone want to take a guess at how he's going to react by hearing Alex suggest that he should just quit?

However Alex might have answered that, he probably wasn't prepared for a reaction like this:

With Lorna's life on the line, and with Havok the only thing between her and certain death, Alex straightens up and sets to the task of controlling his runaway power enough to both tame the Hulk and save Lorna. It's the textbook definition of an "impossible situation"--but with Charles Xavier likely waiting back at his school with a truckload of demerits for Alex should he fail, the impossible yields to resolve and, this time, the right choice of words.

With his accomplishment here today, Alex decides to accompany Lorna back to Xavier's and give further training a shot. As for Banner--well, given how precariously that mesa is balanced, let's hope his sleep isn't a fitful one, eh?

Incredible Hulk #150

Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils: Herb Trimpe
Inks: John Severin
Letterer: Sam Rosen

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Your Referee For This Issue's Bout: Stephen Strange

Before there was Marvel's Greatest Comics, there was Marvel Collectors' Item Classics, a reprint mag begun in 1965 which eventually became MGC after a 4-year run. MCIC, like MGC, reprinted earlier Fantastic Four stories; but it also supplied reprinted material from three other titles, a format which MGC would mimic only for its first five issues before shifting exclusively to the FF.

The mag's title was somewhat ostentatious, if not downright misleading, since the stories were for the most part reprinted in sequence, and of course a majority of them didn't merit being tagged as collectors' items. Whether it was for that reason or another, the masthead was changed to something a little less misleading but equally presumptuous; yet for sheer eye-catching ability, the MGIC masthead was arguably the more impressive of the two:

As with the MGC title, MCIC mostly stayed with the Jack Kirby cover art of the original FF issue--yet on occasion, readers of MGC would be treated to a different cover by another artist. The treat to be found in both titles was to come across the rare occasion where Kirby would be assigned to redesign his own cover--not an uncommon occurrence before an issue's final cover had been decided upon, but quite a head-turner when taking place five years after the fact, which was the treatment given the reprint of Fantastic Four #27:

The story itself is also a head-turner, where Sue finally makes her romantic intentions known to the Sub-Mariner, ending the three-way question mark on the matter involving Sue, Namor, and Reed that had been a hook for readers for some time.

At first glance, there's little of Kirby's original design that needs improving upon, as thick as it is with dramatic confrontation and the promise of this situation between the three being escalated, as well as hopefully settled once and for all. On the MCIC cover, Kirby's main layout stays intact for the most part, with obvious differences that bring the look of the characters up to date with their appearances in 1969 (where they're currently involved with Maximus and the other Inhumans). A difference in inking style is also likely at work, between Chic Stone on the original cover and John Verpoorten on the reprint.

Since the characters are just as prominent on the newer cover as they are on the original, if not more so, and with the corner box now twice the length it originally was, there's not as much room available for the blazing "Search for the Sub-Mariner!" caption--and so it gets downsized, with a blurb that makes mention of the Fantastic Four added to help draw attention to it, while Dr. Strange will have to be satisfied with the billing he receives with Iron Man. Despite being in the background, Strange still stands out as one of the characters who receives a more contemporary look, as well as his coloring adjusted to indicate a more vital role to the story than that of his astral self in the original.  (Though he still comes across looking like a referee!)

In terms of vitality, Namor, Reed, and the Thing all receive attention in that respect--particularly Ben, who looks positively puny standing behind Reed in the original, but who conforms to a truer interpretation of his size on the newer cover while avoiding the need to fit him into the picture in his entirety. Namor also stands out, his features more defined and the threat and intent he conveys coming across more clearly.

As for the cover's Atlantean background as well as the gradient coloring, they appear to have been deemed nonessential on the MCIC cover, which, given the character drama playing out in front of us, may very well be the case.

From FF #47, have a look at another depiction of Kirby's famous standoff layout.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Hammer Strikes! And Strikes Again!

Some interesting Thor "homage" covers by artist Ron Frenz:

(Though this guy is sure paying a heck of a lot of homage!)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Battleground: The Baxter Building!

Things looked pretty bad at the end of Fantastic Four #129--or rather, the Thing looked that way, following a battle where the Frightful Four emerged triumphant against Ben Grimm and his unexpected ally, Medusa, with the lion's share of the victory going to the evil foursome's mysterious new member, the super-strong Thundra. In Part One, it seemed the FF had practically made themselves ripe for the assault which the Frightful Four would soon bring to their very doorstep. Sue Richards had angrily left FF headquarters following an argument with her husband, Reed; Johnny Storm had also left--as in, left the team, permanently, to join his girlfriend Crystal in the land of the Inhumans. And Ben would depart to pay a visit to his girlfriend, Alicia, only to walk into an ambush set by the Wizard and his cohorts.

Soon, this team would move to attack the Baxter Building itself, bolstered by the knowledge that the Torch will not be there to help oppose them. But for now, they bask in a triumph well earned, standing over the unconscious forms of both the FF's strongest member and a woman who used to be one of their own:

One of the interesting things that writer Roy Thomas picks up on in his story is the dichotomy of the evil FF in terms of their membership in this group--sharing no bond with each other to speak of, but all on the same page when it's time to take on a mission. The interaction between them when these two aspects of their makeup are in flux almost reminds you of the Masters of Evil; but while Zemo and the Wizard both kept a tight rein on their respective groups, the dissension amongst the members of the Frightful Four had a way of exploding without warning, each of its members being on a short fuse withoug the distraction of a foe to fight. And so, even on a night where everything has gone their way thus far, the addition of a headstrong new member proves to be a distraction in its own right:

Once again, back on the same page, thanks to the Wizard. And let's remember that the final caption at the end of Part One proclaimed we would see "The End of the Fantastic Four!" in this next issue. Has the time come for the Frightful Four to finally and permanently eclipse their unsuspecting counterparts?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Your Days Are Numbered, When Hunts--Scourge!

Given the amount of titles he would ultimately appear in, as well as the number of murders he would go on to commit, the Scourge of the Underworld received a rather understated introduction on the cover of Iron Man #194, his first appearance:

In writer Denny O'Neil's story, Scourge's business is over and done with very briefly, as it was in nearly all of his appearances--making an unexpected, under-the-radar kill that seems to have no apparent reason, followed by his signature declaration, "Justice Is Served!", after which we're returned to the main story. Over the span of ten months (our time), these inexplicable killings amassed a considerable body count, and two patterns became clear: One, that Scourge was targeting only super-villains; and Two, the targets were arguably low-interest villains that readers weren't really going to miss. (Ironically, Scourge was likely raising their profiles with these hits.)

O'Neil works Scourge into the Iron Man story using a meeting with Tony Stark's ruthless business competitor, Obadiah Stane, to start the ball rolling by having Stane (via a mysterious female colleague) hire the Enforcer to assassinate one of his operatives:

(If you're curious about this Termite character--well, I have to say I'm with Stane on this one.)

Yet the Enforcer's easy paycheck would never be drafted, because this assassin is himself being targeted, and by someone willing to do their deadly job pro bono:

So begins the rampage of Scourge--and it would reach its climax nearly a year later when a sentinel of liberty resolves to see that justice is indeed served.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Once More, The Frightful Four!

Before he would turn over the scripting reins to Gerry Conway, writer Roy Thomas turned in a few issues of Fantastic Four that featured some of the team's most memorable characters. (Though perhaps the Mole Man falls into that category because he was the FF's first villain, rather than any sense of interest among readers.) It stands to reason, then, that he would want to throw that spotlight on the Frightful Four, a classic villainous group we hadn't seen in the book since their ill-considered assault on Whisper Hill. Since Madam Medusa left them, the evil FF had been operating with just the Wizard, the Trapster, and the Sandman--and the lack of a fourth member continued to stick out like a sore thumb. Yet as we see on this issue's cover, that may be about to change.

We know in hindsight that the adoption of Thundra into their midst was mostly an alliance of convenience rather than a shared evil agenda. The Wizard no doubt realized the contribution Medusa had made to the group--and combined with the fact that he likely considered Thundra easy on the eyes, he probably made every effort to conscript her as his fourth member, easily accomplished by giving her the impression that the Thing was the ultimate male opponent she was seeking to prove herself against. To the Wizard, Thundra represented a gift horse in the mouth--a short-term opportunity that would allow him to crush his enemies, more than likely followed by an effort to convince her to remain with them. How that would work out, we'll never know. The Sandman obviously already provided the muscle of the group--and while there's no denying Thundra's advantage to them in that regard, she couldn't provide the balance of abilities that Medusa did.

And so the "Frightful Four" lives again--for the sake of this particular story, at least. Yet this team lineup would also end up having the Fantastic Four on the ropes--a testament to the formidable reputation of this ruthless group that Thomas remembers to bring forward from their earlier appearances.

As for the Fantastic Four--thanks to recent events, they won't be in much of a position to stand up to the challenge of their evil foes. They return exhausted by a recent encounter with the Mole Man and Tyrannus, to be followed by a shocking announcement from the Torch:

(Would somebody tell Mr. Thomas that "The Frightful Four--Plus One!" makes it the Frightful Five?)

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