Monday, May 2, 2016

Pam Grier, Your Dream Role Is Calling You

Previously, we were introduced to the forthright, militant woman named Leila Taylor, who paid a visit to the Falcon's civilian identity, Sam Wilson, and let him know that Harlem needed men who would fight for "the cause" more than it needed social workers. Sam, instantly drawn to Leila, in turn tried to get her to see both sides of the picture; but while the two eventually saw eye to eye in the romance department, their political differences continued to be a wedge between them, with each of them trying to convince the other of the merits of their approach. (Think Hubbell Gardiner and Katie Morosky without the drippy soundtrack, and with more pushing them apart than drawing them together.) Leila remained a character of Captain America and a love interest for the Falcon for well over 100 issues, and handled by a number of writers who adjusted her priorities and her once-volatile temperament as times changed; yet the one character trait that stuck with her, however diminished, was the willingness to speak her mind and confront someone who she felt needed to hear the truth straight-up. In the early days of her development, that person turned out to be Sam himself, and, later, the Falcon.

As a follow-up to that earlier story where Leila made such an unforgettable impression on the book as well as with the reader, let's take a brief look at how she progressed through these formative issues--as she seeks to come to terms with her feelings for the Falcon, vs. her status as a fierce proponent of the rights and needs of Harlem's black residents.

Friday, April 29, 2016

When Lands The Saucer!

In looking at the early issues of the ambitious 1968 Silver Surfer series, it's puzzling to see the approach that writer Stan Lee took with the character following the Surfer's very successful string of appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four. In that comic, the Surfer was something of a wanderer, a character who stood apart, limiting his contact with humans and being content to explore the planet from his vantage point in the sky--and though he eventually concluded that the human race was warring, savage, and self-destructive, he was never hounded and shunned in the same manner as the Hulk, nor was he the victim of aggression or hatred. Yet once he began starring in his own series, the Surfer was immediately made into a figure of suffering, and became more self-absorbed with his predicament--despondent at his imprisonment on our world, and finding himself persecuted by the very humans he would attempt to help.

Now in the spotlight of his own comic book, it was perhaps understandable that Lee would want to raise his profile from what it had been in Fantastic Four and find some sort of angle to make him more relatable to his readers--that is to say, more sellable. With the preliminaries over and his origin well-explained in his opening issue, all eyes were undoubtedly on the crucial second issue, which would give us some idea of what Marvel was going to do with this character. For the first time since his solo story in the 1967 FF annual, the Surfer would be the principal character who drove the story and was responsible for holding the attention and interest of the reader in a (bimonthly) 40-page issue. A forty-page issue. How would he spend his time on our world, and in all of those pages? In what way(s) would he interact, as he now must, with the humans he had been content to leave to their own devices? How would so different a hero from the more conventional ones in Marvel's lineup sustain a larger, more expensive comic? What sort of adventures could the Silver Surfer have on our planet that a reader would be excited about? The second issue would be looked at to point the way--expectations would be high, and a lot was presumably riding on how the issue would integrate the Silver Surfer to a life spent on Earth, and with Earthlings.

And yet issue #2 chooses to go off-world for its enemy, and likely evokes an unwelcome question:

"Good lord--alien invaders, so soon?"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The (Mis)Judgment Of Odin!

In Parts One and Two of the fierce battle between Thor and the evil warrior-sorcerers known as the Enchanters, the Asgardians waged their battle on two fronts: Thor and his friends, Balder the Brave and the lady Sif, engaged the Enchanters Magnir and Brona on Earth, while the third Enchanter, Forsung, met Odin in a deadly duel in Asgard. Thor and his comrades managed to prevail, partly because of the powers of all participants except for Odin and Forsung being removed due to the conditions that the two established for their own conflict. But with Brona and Magnir vanquished, the question remains: What of Odin?

With no word forthcoming on the fate of their liege, Thor turns the Enchanters over to the N.Y.P.D., with the assurance that the Asgardians will again be at their service should the captives break free. Which leaves the stranded Asgardians pondering their fate, including one who ponders his own conflicting feelings regarding Thor's beloved.

Since Balder appears to be in no shortage of females ready to step in and make him forget all about the lady What's-Her-Name, it's time to move on to the more pressing matter of the one thread left hanging from the story--the victor of the vicious battle between Odin and Forsung. And we learn of the result in no uncertain terms, as Odin declares his victory in defiant, raging, and almost deafening words.

It would seem that Odin is sending a message to any other presumptuous challengers who might dare to take him on and attempt to remove him from the throne of Asgard--a message that makes it clear that there can only be one fate for anyone who's foolish enough to try. You might have the impression that Odin is going way overboard here, acting almost like a madman who's obsessed with keeping a tight grip on the power he holds in his position, even to the point of striking terror into the hearts of his own subjects--on the other hand, have you met Odin?

At any rate, Odin begins taking names and putting his house in order. The first order of business is to make sure the remaining Enchanters are dealt with, harshly and for all time--which also frees up a police detention cell, and lets a few very nervous guards off the hook.

From there, Odin moves on to his stranded subjects, while also feeling obliged to eavesdrop.

Both Sif and Balder re-pledge their fealty, and are subsequently spirited back to Asgard. But Thor will find that Odin, in his current mood, has no patience for an Asgardian who prefers to be an Asgardian in name only.

Odin often takes a disciplinary, almost brutal approach in his dealings with Thor--and in doing so here, he would seem to be depriving himself of a considerable advantage when it comes to the security of Asgard, since an exiled, powerless Thor isn't going to do Asgard any good if there are enemies at the gates, nor is Odin likely to relent and communicate with Thor if he's in need of him. Perhaps there are times when a father should take a step back and leave well enough alone. So Thor prefers to stay and help the mortals on Earth--so what? It's really not such a bad compromise for Odin to make, since Thor will still drop everything and return to Asgard to fight in its defense if the need should be there. Does Odin really need to have that daily "Hail, my liege!" from Thor every morning?

Perhaps the closest thing we have to an answer as to why Odin feels so strongly about this issue can be found in the story arc which introduces the mortal "Red" Norvell as the new Thor--a development made possible by a contingency plan set in motion by Odin, thanks to his son's constant absences from the realm.

How ironic, then, that Odin's plan only makes the situation worse.

As for the here and now, Odin would indeed return his son's power six issues later, claiming that his "discipline" of Thor was necessary because his son had lost his humility. Baloney. Odin was a raging loon at the time he acted against Thor, and his only intent was showing his son the penalty for disobedience.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

This Battleground Earth!

If you're an Asgardian, you generally live under the threat of two main threats: Ragnarok, and those who wish to either conquer or destroy your realm. Enemies can strike at any time--and so when you get wind of an enemy that might be feeling confident enough to take on the forces of Asgard, you take it seriously and investigate. Consequently, we find the lady Sif and Balder the Brave galloping through the land of Ringsfjord, where the evil Enchanters are said to be girding for war. Unfortunately, the reports prove to be true--and Balder and Sif encounter the deadly trio as they prepare to strike on two fronts.

The Enchanters appear to be a core group of warriors who also have the advantage of a high level of sorcery. In addition, as we've seen, each wears an emblem of the Living Talisman, which can take powerful humanoid form to deal with enemies but which also serves in a strategic capacity. The Enchanters simply spring forth in the pages of Thor, without the reader learning of their origin or knowing how they can be so confident of victory--but the threat to Asgard is real enough for writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby to stretch their campaign into a 1967 two-part story.

Sif and Balder escape with their lives and head to Earth to warn the Thunder God, Thor, as well as to have his assistance in the coming battle with these three foes. You'd think they would have instead reported back to Odin, whose orders sent them on this mission, instead of detouring all the way to Earth; the Enchanters are clearly prepared to make their move, and the first duty of Sif and Balder, after all, is to warn Asgard. As it turns out, the two Asgardians have played right into the Enchanters' hands.

It takes most of this opening issue for us to get this far in the story; we spend a few pages with Thor as he stops in at a soda shoppe, while more pages have Balder and Sif struggling in battle with the humanoid Talisman as well as with another strike from the Enchanters themselves. (There's also a Tales Of Asgard segment competing for story space in the issue.) By the time Part One draws to a close, however, things are revving up: The Enchanters split their forces, with Brona and Magnir heading toward Earth to dispose of Thor and his two friends, while Forsung travels to Asgard to directly challenge Odin.

You would think the last thing Thor's team needs right now is a distraction, since an imminent threat from the Enchanters isn't to be taken lightly--but, good grief, Balder, where the heck is this coming from??

While Thor is fighting for his life against the Enchanters, is Balder going to be putting the moves on the lady Sif?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Power To The People!

Of the collection of the Marvel 25¢ large-format books that very briefly hit the comics shelves in late 1971, one of the stand-outs turned out to be issue #143 of Captain America and the Falcon--not so much because of the story's climax or the revelation of the behind-the-scenes mystery villain, but for the issue at the heart of the story, as well as the characterization of and interaction between two of its central characters. The easy assumption to make is that those two people are Cap and the Falcon; instead, the pair who will likely hold the reader's interest to a greater degree are Sam Wilson, the Falcon's civilian identity, and Leila Taylor, a woman with a militant bent who resides in Harlem during the time when racial tensions were escalating and pitting the neighborhood's activists against law enforcement and white establishment.

It's an ambitious story set in motion by Stan Lee but expanded on and taken to its conclusion by Gary Friedrich, set in the backdrop of a neighborhood whose residents had become bitter and angry at living conditions and the poor prospects of improving their economic standing. It's easy to see where Sam might fit into this story--a social worker based in Harlem who does his best to steer its residents toward available jobs and educational opportunities--while Cap, who's recently struck up a partnership with the Falcon, begins to further acclimate to the neighborhood when he's asked by the police commissioner to assume an undercover role as a police officer in order to investigate a string of mysterious disappearances in the area. That case is solved when he and the Falcon go after the Grey Gargoyle--but by then, two meetings have taken place in prior stories that will leave impressions on each of these men and carry them through the events of this issue's climax.

For Cap, he meets the Reverend Garcia, a charitable man who runs a local boys' club and who Cap, in his role as Officer Steve Rogers, finds common ground with following an altercation with some riled-up locals. Garcia has a great deal of faith in those who believe themselves to be beyond help, and is often willing to go the extra mile to help them find the confidence they need to pull themselves up, a perspective which naturally reaches Cap on a fundamental level. As for Sam, he receives a visit at his office from Leila, a woman who's dead set on getting him to change his point of view on his approach to the problems facing Harlem's residents. Leila's thrown in with the "People's Militia," a group of locals who have adopted a more militant stance to confront and lash out against those they believe are taking advantage of them--at least, that's what it would probably look like on paper. In the story we'll see that the so-called Militia is focused mostly on venting their anger, and at times their targets are picked without reason or forethought--though both of those things are clearly being applied by their masked figurehead known as "the Man," who appears to have a purpose beyond siding with Leila and her group for "the cause."

For now, Lee lays the groundwork for the conflict to come, both through Cap's work on the streets as a rookie cop and by having Leila make the rounds to presumably form ties with those who could benefit the militia. Leila is a striking figure as rendered by artist John Romita, who does outstanding work on this issue--yet her personality and assertiveness are equally impressive as she takes Sam's measure. Sam is obviously drawn to her--and while she may feel the same, she doesn't give an inch of ground in letting Sam know where her priorities lie.

When Friedrich takes over as the book's writer, Leila also goes straight to the source of a perceived cover-up (would you expect her to settle for less?) and confronts the police commissioner as he visits Garcia, who's recuperating after his treatment by the Gargoyle. Yet Garcia believes just as fervently in his own approach, so discordant with Leila's uncompromising methods--and while she'll turn a deaf ear to his words, Garcia will at least make sure that she hears them.

As this story finally reaches its conclusion in issue #143, things have reached a fever pitch, and the Militia is ready to back up its threats with action--thanks to "the Man," who has stoked the fires of their discontent and turned it into sheer rage. Will we indeed see "power to the people"? Or does the true power to this situation lie elsewhere?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Going... Going... Gone!

We know that a story featuring the incredible Hulk is going to be action-packed, for the most part--but apparently the caption writer for this cover of Tales To Astonish felt that we needed to be jolted with a virtual cattle prod in order to get that point across.

If we're all done wincing, it's worth noting that even the Hulk seems to be trying to reach out to crush the caption of "go Go GO HULK!" like a ripe tomato. It's easy to picture someone like Rick Jones egging the Hulk on with those words--but as a sales device, encouraging the reader to get into the spirit of rooting for the Hulk to prevail, it seems a little, I don't know, pushy? Marvel isn't exactly reticent about slapping motivational captions on its covers, ads, and splash pages, but this one seems to go beyond suggesting feelings of excitement and instead making the decision for us.

At any rate, let's take a peek within and see why the Hulk needs to be go go going and where he's supposed to be going to. From the story's splash page, it looks like he's on his way to outer space!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Beware The Future--Beware The Mutates!

As often as Pluto, Lord of the Netherworld, insinuates himself into the affairs of mortals, he might as well just assume leadership of the Masters of Evil and get it over with. Pluto, as we know from stories past, regards his status as ruler of the netherworld as being under lock and key by his brother, Zeus, who has consigned him there indefinitely. Consequently, he schemes to find a way to bypass Zeus's edict (as he did when deceiving Hercules into taking his place), or disregarding it entirely in order to make incursions into other worlds or realms.

When his attempt with Hercules failed with the interference of Thor, Pluto returned to his scheming--and in a two-part story from 1969, he boldly seeks to conquer Earth, completely unmindful of the wrath of Zeus at this bid to escape his fate in the netherworld.

The only way for Pluto's plans to move forward is to ignore a gaping plot hole by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby: How will Pluto succeed in such an audacious scheme without fear of reprisal by Zeus? For the duration of this story, there appear to be no provisions made by Pluto in that regard, whereas a later scheme to gain Odin's soul could be seen as falling within his role of taking possession of the dead (if loosely--Pluto still overstepped his bounds with Odin in superseding the jurisdiction of Valhalla vis-à-vis Odin's soul). Nevertheless, Pluto's scheme involving a direct threat against Earth demands the intervention of Thor, whose involvement begins with the startling appearance of a mystic funnel in the heart of the city.

The funnel coincides with the disappearance of the city's atomic research center, which explains the military's arrival in force. We also learn that the lady Sif, Thor's beloved, had been an early responder to the scene and had inexplicably vanished inside the funnel soon afterward. Yet before Thor can attempt to join her, he finds himself another victim of the forces within.

Little does Thor suspect that he's been taken not only elsewhere--but elsewhen.
But what has all of this to do with the ruler of the underworld?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

We'll Take Manhattan!

The action-packed Avengers #82 is mostly a fast-paced wrap-up issue, almost hurriedly tying up the loose ends of a number of prior stories. The paper trail breaks down like this:

  • The Zodiac crime cartel escapes capture by the Avengers;
  • Financier Cornelius Van Lunt makes a power play on Stark Industries as a ruse to hire the Avengers as his personal super-powered wrecking crew--while, unknown to everyone, his disgruntled aide, Wilkins, lays a deadly trap for the team in order to pin their murders on his despised employer (and fails);
  • The Avengers become involved with the man known as Red Wolf as he pursues his own vendetta against Van Lunt, but are forced to split their resources to help him, as some choose to remain in New York to track Zodiac;
  • The Black Panther and Daredevil team up against the gang known as the Thunderbolts in order to save one of the Panther's students and his brother; and finally,
  • The Avengers group that joins Red Wolf heads west to confront Van Lunt at his ranch.

From this issue's cover, it looks like the Avengers still in New York have been keeping busy--but we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. First, a quick recap of where things stand: (a) the Avengers team that joined Red Wolf is just about to arrive back in New York; (b) the Panther and Daredevil have concluded their case; and (c) it's as yet undisclosed regarding any progress the Avengers in Manhattan have made in their hunt for Zodiac.

But we can at least give you an idea of what Zodiac has been up to:

Good grief! The Zodiac member known as Aries launches a pre-dawn invasion of Manhattan with a well-equipped, disciplined army! All of that intelligence equipment at Avengers Mansion, and the help of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America and his team can't get a lead on the activities of a super-powered crime cartel? It's never a good sign when your enemies invade your city right under your masked noses!

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