Friday, December 13, 2019

Thou Shalt Not Imitate

While browsing the comics rack, there are occasions when an issue's cover might have one feeling compelled to pick up a mag out of sheer curiosity. In mid-1967, there were surely more than a few readers who couldn't resist finding out the circumstances of this meeting:

Barely perceptible, we see the figures of the Cobra and Mr. Hyde (wouldn't you think a man like Hyde would insist on top billing?) lurking in the background, so we know they've got something to do with this--but aren't we really wondering how Daredevil can expect to throw down with Thor? And could we also be thinking that, this being Marvel, somehow that's going to be made possible?

We'd later see that Daredevil would give a good accounting of himself battling Hogun the Grim (albeit waging an uphill battle)--but how does he hope to prevail against a storm god? For the answer, we have to turn our attention to Hyde and the Cobra, the unknowing catalysts for this meeting, who are feeling confident enough in their power to have word of their activities reach any ears in the city.

And since these two had originally cut their villain teeth in battle against Thor (another curious mismatch, though balanced in a way by the fact that it was two against one), Daredevil, rather than trying to locate the pair through normal channels or an extensive search, instead cooks up one of the most nutty plans to ever come our way.

Try as you might--and you may well have--you can't really un-see this, can you.

Of course, the other half of this pairing isn't exactly thinking straight, either, as Donald Blake blows off his work in order to track down a Thor impersonator, on the knee-jerk assumption that whoever it is must be someone sinister--when the first thought of you or I would be that the guy is probably just a thrill-seeker, or someone trying to get media attention, or just a flat-out nutjob, characters not unheard of in New York City.  (Or, these days, practically anywhere.)

Unlike Daredevil's billy club, Thor has an enchanted hammer which leads him right to his quarry--a man who practically takes himself out of this match just by trying to get out of Thor's way. But as fired-up as Thor is about this, he's not going to let the matter drop so easily. (Something Blake should have probably done from the start.)

With Daredevil's cover literally blown, the time comes for DD to explain his ruse--yet Thor now finds a problem with DD's plan, convinced that the crime-fighter's power would be insufficient against the two he seeks. And so, the basis of their contest becomes just that: a contest to gauge Daredevil's ability to face the Cobra and Hyde, and at Daredevil's instigation, no less. As Captain America once declared, you meet some strange folks in this business.

As for our two villains, they happen to show up on the tail end of this mock fight--and their timing couldn't be better, given Daredevil's eagerness to locate them.

Unfortunately, DD's boast to Thor of proving his mettle against these two doesn't pan out in the end, with Hyde exposing our hero to a solution that deprives him of his super-senses and leaves him truly blind--a story we'll have to reserve for another time. (However, we can probably assume that Don Blake's radio will be switched off for the duration.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

...In Battle We Join!

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Sub-Mariner and Iron Man had mutual respect for one another--but the last we may have seen of it was in 1979, in a two-part story that saw Tony Stark's problem with alcohol becoming more apparent by the day, and the Sub-Mariner showing fierce loyalty toward a human, both situations giving us a different perspective in how we're used to seeing these characters. In Stark's case, he's begun imbibing more than usual as a result of S.H.I.E.L.D. initiating a hostile takeover of his company, Stark International, in an effort to return S.I. to the business of manufacturing munitions--while Namor, having recently been rescued from toxic waste poisoning by a lone island dweller named Hiram Dobbs, now occupies that island with Dobbs against the incursion of a U.S. Special Forces unit that wishes to evict Dobbs for his own safety due to the island having been used for several years as a government dumping ground for radioactive waste.

And when Iron Man is drawn into Namor's clash with the Army unit... well, take a wild guess as to how things escalate from there.

But... shouldn't Namor want to be helping his new friend?

Monday, December 9, 2019


The introduction of Will-O'-The-Wisp, a character brought to comics by writer Len Wein and artist John Romita (the concept taken from a fanzine Wein was connected with around 1966), appeared to be well-received by readers of Amazing Spider-Man following his debut in 1977:

"What interests me is this strange, new entity which calls itself Will-O'-The-Wisp. An unusual villain ... he's a tragic figure, forced to perform acts repellent to him, and hoping to regain his lost humanity. He seems to be one of Spidey's more fascinating foes, even from what little we've seen of him. And I hope we see much, much more."

"...Will-O'-The-Wisp is probably one of the most original and fascinating villains we'll see this year."

"Will-O'-The-Wisp is one of the more memorable of Spidey's antagonists, with a sufficiently bizarre appearance and interesting enough powers to make their fight an enjoyable one."

"I demand, I insist, I implore you--bring back Will-O'-The-Wisp! Never has a new character made such an impression on me. If you don't bring him back, I'll never forgive you."

"Will-O'-The-Wisp is about the most mysterious, most enigmatic hero villain to come along in... in... well, I don't know when. Please bring him back... soon! And when you do, please, don't reveal too much about his past. I like him as he is!"

"The Will-O'-The-Wisp was fantastic! He showed potential for becoming a real super-hero."

Before such high praise rolled into the Marvel offices, you'd think it would have been a tad premature to label the Wisp as a "SUPER-STAR!" right out of the gate.  Yet try telling that to the copywriter(s) for each of the covers of the Wisp's two-part story, who seemed convinced the character was going places:

Yet even if you weren't quite convinced of the Wisp's SUPER-STAR! status by story's end, chances are you were more than satisfied with a solid story by Wein and artist Ross Andru, which demonstrated their chemistry on the book while including most of the basics of a decent Spider-Man tale which usually tend to keep one engaged throughout. For example, in addition to appearances by friends of Peter Parker's, such as Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn, there's also Peter's romantic interest, Mary Jane Watson, along with rather a surprising turn for Peter's Aunt May:

We'll also be witness to a rather disturbing conversation between Spidey and Joe Robertson, City Editor of J. Jonah Jameson's "Daily Bugle"; and there's of course Jameson himself, who has taken the next step in hounding his webbed nemesis with yet another "Spider-Slayer":

Memory fails when scientist/biologist Dr. Marla Madison (Jameson's future wife) became a robotics engineer. You have to wonder what other credentials she'll spring on us at some point.

And speaking of Jameson, we find that Peter Parker has cause to worry about the contents of an envelope in Jameson's possession (though temporarily in Peter's, following Spidey's visit to Jameson's office safe):

All of which avoids overshadowing the Wisp, considering how prominently he's featured. We don't discover all there is to know about the Wisp in this story--but we're provided with sufficient enough information on the circumstances of his creation, the nature of his abilities, and the reasons behind his actions to be intrigued by both his power and his character. For instance, what sort of adversary runs a truck off the road in order to steal a mysterious device, only to tend to the injuries of its occupants before departing?

Friday, December 6, 2019

Stranger In The Sanctum

On rare occasion, there have been instances where the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange, faced "himself" in battle, though in each instance the culprit turned out to be Baron Mordo in disguise--once, when Strange reclaimed his vocation after a long absence, and again, when attempting (and failing) to prevent the destruction of Earth. But there has arguably been no "stranger" such battle than the one which took place when Strange was in the midst of a conflict with those sorcerers who called themselves the Creators, which led to Strange being forced to face a version of himself in a world gone mad.

To gain some perspective on the situation, we'll have to let Strange's disciple and lover, Clea, take us back a bit and recap the climax of Strange's confrontation of the Creators, where he inadvertently (yet recklessly) became responsible for handing the Creators their triumph.

With the world now remade to the Creators' liking, Strange and his party return to the relative calm of his sanctum. But he has failed to put two and two together and suspect that his dwelling might not be vacant--and that the Creators might have replaced his home's occupant with another who would give Strange a proper reception. And on this Earth remade, the nature of the new master of this sanctum is bound to take even one of Strange's background by surprise.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Unknown Soldier

The concept of the Winter Soldier, introduced by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting in the fall of 2005, played out well in both the Captain America comic and its film adaptation nine years later--with the basic presentation of the Soldier as a Soviet operative during the Cold War remaining intact, while differing in the methods by which Cap discovers that his former partner did not meet his death in a tragic accident during the closing days of World War II and had instead been co-opted as a ruthless assassin carrying out assignments sporadically through the decades.

At the time, Brubaker's story was considered both bold and controversial, the character of Bucky Barnes having been one of the last bastions of those who had been sent to the grave and permitted to remain there, escaping the fate of being brought back for shock value and thus debasing the powerful ripple effect that their deaths would generate for future stories. Bucky has "returned" in one form or another... as a delusion of Dr. Faustus, or as a tool used by M.O.D.O.K., or as the chosen partner of the Cap of the 1950s who bore a resemblance to the real McCoy; but I was certainly one of those who would have bet my entire collection on the assumption that Marvel would never have given serious thought to undoing the death that had haunted Steve Rogers and, as a result, added a great deal of dimension to a man struggling to find his place in the 20th century. No--this was the one character who couldn't, wouldn't be exhumed. Even in fiction, some things were sacrosanct.

Phooey. I was "dead" wrong, of course (to say nothing of relieved that no one had taken that bet)--and in hindsight, the Winter Soldier served to add another level of tragedy to the story of Bucky Barnes, and, by extension, Captain America. And after all, unless you were invested in the character of Bucky from reading the Captain America comics of the 1940s or from his appearances in the pages of The Invaders, you'd really only have one brief scene from The Avengers #4--the purpose of which was to account for Cap's disappearance in the last days of the war--on which to base your impressions of Cap's young partner, and of his death. All things considered, it would seem to be a character ripe for a new plot, and, with the right story, a new life.

While both Brubaker's story and the film have strong merits and both stand very well on their own, the differences between their plots are really quite interesting--mainly, the fact that originally it's the Cosmic Cube that figures centrally in Cap's discovery of Bucky's activities as the Soldier. There is also the figure of Aleksander Lukin, a rogue Soviet general and CEO of the Kronas Corporation, who discovers the Soldier in stasis and has him murder the Red Skull to obtain what is at this point a damaged Cube. Lukin then proceeds to carry out a revenge plot against Cap--first, by having the Soldier kill Jack Monroe, the 1950s Bucky who had eventually been taken under Cap's wing and later assumed the costumed identity of the Nomad, and then having the Soldier set off a WMD in Philadelphia designed by A.I.M. to recharge the Cube while setting up Monroe as the fall guy.

But in a S.H.I.E.L.D. briefing conducted by Nick Fury and Agent 13 (Sharon Carter), Cap learns there is much more to the Philadelphia bombing, including the possibility of a new suspect--a Soviet operative and Cold War assassin who is disturbingly familiar to everyone in the room.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Monster vs. Monster!

For us, the time was late 1973--but for a certain comics character, it was the 1890s, when the Frankenstein monster roamed through Europe, seemingly doomed to face a mixture of panic and persecution from those who regarded it with loathing and, most definitely, fear. Yet they also feared another menace, those creatures that came in the night and left blood and death in their wake--and in the seventh issue of his series, the monster would face the threat of vampires... and one vampire in particular.

The Frankenstein Monster (renamed from The Monster of Frankenstein after five issues) was a fairly interesting effort by writer Gary Friedrich to bring the classic monster from Mary Shelley's novel "mainstream" in a continuing series--with Marvel even bringing the monster forward in time to the 1970s at one point, an understandable decision considering that you could only do so many stories featuring angry villagers with torches and pitchforks.

Friedrich would pass the reins to Doug Moench for that segue, who would take the series through nearly the rest of its run of eighteen issues before cancellation. In hindsight, perhaps a limited series might have been a more practical way of handling this concept; even Tomb of Dracula, featuring another horror character who occupied a "niche," struggled to maintain its readership before ceasing publication with its sixtieth issue. But while Dracula was far more mobile and pursued a variety of interests, the monster was like a land-bound Hulk who could only roam from village to village.

Yet before the meeting pictured above would take place, we get a fair idea of what The Frankenstein Monster brings to the table, with its weaving of mystery and the macabre that worked surprisingly well for its title character. Even so, vampires offer a spike of interest to a story that no self-respecting monster shouldered with carrying his own series would turn down.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Beware The Return of... Mordo! (Or not.)

Even though I recall my first Dr. Strange story, it would be awhile before I would flip through the character's debut appearance in 1963. As with other Marvel characters that I became exposed to, I had to work my way backwards, piecemeal, in order to become more familiar with Strange, steadily closing in on learning more about the man who was originally known as the Master of Black Magic, and, as a result, finding myself drawn more (at least in the beginning) to the less rigid, more human Stephen Strange who later emerged in other stories besides his own. That's not to say I didn't really care for Strange during his time as the Ancient One's disciple; in fact I find the dichotomy between the two versions of Strange interesting, albeit likely not intended to be scrutinized too closely. I wonder if Stephen Strange would even recognize himself in his more exotic, stern appearance and manner back in the day.

By the time we first meet Strange in print, he'd been in that role for some time, establishing a reputation as a mystic master in his own right and having made his fair share of enemies in the process. Primary among those, Baron Mordo, was someone I first read of in Strange's origin story, a man who surreptitiously plotted against the Ancient One and paid a price for it by being rejected as his successor in favor of Strange. But to readers of Strange Tales in August of 1963, their first exposure to Mordo was just after Strange was introduced in the comic and had successfully prevailed in his first adventure. All we know of Mordo at that point is that he and Strange were once pupils of the Ancient One and have since become rivals (in Mordo's eyes) for "the secrets of black magic"--thus making Mordo the perfect arch-enemy, having been attacking both Strange and the Ancient One openly. And in his latest scheme, he seeks to attain by force what he could not accomplish through subterfuge.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Enter: The Master Of Black Magic!

When it comes to comic book stories, less can be so much more--and I know of no finer example of that time-tested idiom than a story premiering in mid-1963 which featured the first appearance of the Master of the Mystic Arts Black Magic, Dr. Strange, a tale which totaled a mere five pages but even in its simplicity managed not only to provide the reader with the basic elements of this intriguing new character's background but to also wrap those elements within a tidy yet satisfying first adventure. Written by Stan Lee with art by Steve Ditko, Strange made his debut as a backup feature in (what else?) Strange Tales, sporting a virtual marquee of his own.

The copy is quite correct (and perhaps intentional) in mentioning that the feature premieres quietly and without Marvel's usual cover fanfare; in fact, it would take seven issues (equating to seven months, which in a way underscores the point) before Strange would receive even a mention on the title's cover, as if Lee were walking on tiptoes with this character:

In his extensive section on Dr. Strange in Origins Of Marvel Comics, Lee makes no mention of his reticence in promoting the character--only that he and Ditko were "cautiously feeling [their] way" with him in terms of fleshing out the framework of his world and the extent of his abilities; yet it's really only a minor observation on my part, a matter of curiosity which some of the more learned among you may be able to shed some light on. In no way does it (nor should it) impact on what turns out to be a very nicely structured introduction to an intriguing character who, as the story's final panel announces, will be our guide to the mystic world which represents uncharted territory for those who until now have focused their efforts on super-heroes rooted in reality.

And as we'll see, even those in the real world have need for such a man.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Holy Markup, Batman

What in the...?

"Facsimile" editions? Collectible reprints?

Is this some kind of joke?

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