Friday, February 12, 2016

It's Been A Blast--But You Bombed

I wish I could tell you that a match-up between Thor, the God of Thunder and Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst would be a battle to remember. But since his debut in the pages of Fantastic Four, Blastaar hasn't exactly seen his star on the rise. His next appearance in X-Men two years later gave us a good idea why that title was spiraling down to cancellation; and when he resurfaced in Marvel Team-Up to take on the Human Torch and the Hulk, it was under a human's control, forced to do his bidding in destroying a factory which belonged to a business finagler who had cheated him. The X-Men story was atrocious--the MTU story far less so--but the threat of Blastaar in both cases was handily dealt with and somewhat lackluster.

So why wouldn't an appearance in Mighty Thor help to bring this character back from the specter of oblivion and reinstate him as a major threat? Well, we could choose from among three reasons. First, Blastaar has an impressive track record--of being successfully fought off, that is. The FF dealt with him even with their attention divided by the Sandman; the X-Men's tactics were jokes, and still they outfought him; Medusa restrained him with her hair so that any blasts from his hands would cause him to be crushed; and the Hulk neutralized him by wrapping him up in adamantium alloy and hurling him into the ocean. (How's that for dismissing your foe?) Blastaar also proved in the X-Men story to be vulnerable to electrocution--so imagine how a god who can wield lightning will do against him.

Secondly, Blastaar, aside from his body's ability to resist temperature extremes, has one power to his credit: explosive bursts. As a would-be conqueror, that power alone doesn't cut it. There are other sources of explosive forces that can counter Blastaar, without even venturing into the super-powered options. And, granted, Thor has been dropped by explosions before, but he's also withstood such forces. What that means for Blastaar is that, while Blastaar might gain the upper hand at some point, soon enough Thor will overwhelm him.

Lastly, Blastaar is once again acting under orders of another--this time, I kid you not, a sentient factory. In fact, he's practically dedicated himself to this building's wishes and carrying out its orders (calling it "Master," just as he did with the Kree at an earlier time), mostly because the factory--F.A.U.S.T., the automated factory featured in the MTU story--has promised to install him as King of the Negative Zone. The Blastaar we remember would have destroyed this factory on the spot for making such a ludicrous promise without providing any specifics; instead, Blastaar gives the building his unwavering loyalty and carries out his orders without hesitation. You can almost see Blastaar's cred in world-conquering circles plummeting.

The only thing we truly have to look forward to in this fight is that Thor meets Blastaar after having dealt with the Stilt-Man--and we surely have to breathe a sigh of relief that Blastaar would have to be a step up from that.

Unfortunately, Thor would spend much of this issue pursuing information on F.A.U.S.T., leaving him only two brief intervals of battling Blastaar. In both instances, Thor never mixes it up with Blastaar to the extent we know he can; in fact, he seems to fight mostly a defensive battle, while writer Len Wein's main goal appears to be to move along the continuing plot involving F.A.U.S.T. Thor is even ejected from his first skirmish with the brute due to his hammer being out of his grasp for more than sixty seconds.

See what I mean? Nothing to write home about so far--except to maybe say, "Ma, I've been gypped!!" And when Thor later engages with Blastaar in force at the factory site, the fight is cut short after just a few panels when the central computer core of F.A.U.S.T. blasts off into orbit and Blastaar panics at being seemingly abandoned. But rather than Thor finishing things up with him, we'll find that Blastaar is dealt with by F.A.U.S.T. in absentia.

For what it's worth, Thor will be joined by Iron Man in taking the fight to F.A.U.S.T. in the next issue. As for Blastaar, you may or may not want to see him again--but after seeing how quickly he's gone downhill, you'll probably want something more substantive than Asst. Editor Jake Thomas's sales pitch as an incentive, eh?

Mighty Thor #270

Script: Len Wein
Pencils: Walt Simonson
Inks: Tony DeZuniga
Letterer: Joe Rosen

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Lost Boys

It was during the (West Coast) Avengers' conflict with Master Pandemonium and the deadly Mephisto when Agatha Harkness began to consider the conundrum of whether or not the twin children of the Scarlet Witch and the Vision were actually "real."

We've already seen Miss Harkness provide an answer to the Torch's question when the situation with Master Pandemonium was resolved; but while writer/artist John Byrne did a thorough job of arranging for these children to have literally never existed, it's important to note that Steve Englehart's original story of their birth provided Byrne with sufficient tools to do just that. So to put the matter into perspective, it's time we had a look at key events from Englehart's twelve-issue 1985-86 Vision and the Scarlet Witch limited series, which focuses on Wanda's unexpected and improbable pregnancy and, for at least an instant in time for this couple, provides one of the happiest happy endings you may have ever seen in comics.

But the event would also unknowingly end up setting the wheels in motion for... oh, let's see:

  • Wanda going mad;
  • the end of the Vision;
  • the deaths of Ant-Man and Jack of Hearts;
  • the end of the Avengers;
  • the death of Miss Harkness;
  • M-Day; and, if we connect the dots,
  • the Marvel Universe, as we knew it, ceasing to exist.

This post already has its title, but we could also simply call it:

(Needless to say, those complications would extend beyond the delivery room!)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reckless Youth

OR: "Be Careful What You Wish For..."

It's probably about time that we found out just what was up with that story arc we've seen in bits and pieces here at the PPOC--one which took place in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, involving an ancient petrified tablet which had New York's crime figures very interested in deciphering the secret of its mysterious inscription. To bring us up to speed, here's a brief rundown of the players involved and where the tablet has landed along the way:

  • The Kingpin has already tried and failed in his own attempt to uncover its secret, having brazenly retrieved it from its display at the E.S.U. college campus only to see it eventually recovered by Spider-Man.
  • From that point, the tablet makes its way to retired police Capt. George Stacy's wall safe (pending its return to ESU), where the Shocker finds and steals it (thanks to the news media blabbering its location--nice going, news hounds!). But the Shocker, merely interested in financial gain, discovers that it's now impossible to fence the object because buyers are fearful of tangling with Spider-Man. The Shocker's plan at that point is simple: deal with Spider-Man, thus making himself more feared than the wall-crawler and thus more likely to find a fence for his heist. You can guess how lousy that turned out for the Shocker.
  • The trail of the tablet then leads to Man-Mountain Marko, a hireling of the Maggia crime syndicate, who discovers the Shocker has stashed the tablet at his girlfriend's apartment for safekeeping and breaks in to steal it. Marko ends up tangling with Spider-Man for his trouble, but manages to escape with the tablet.

Which brings us to this point: What the heck does the Maggia want with this tablet? We discover that Marko is acting under the direct orders of the aged Silvermane, a powerful crime figure of the organization who suspects the tablet's secret but kidnaps scientist Curt Connors (as well as Wilson, the Kingpin's expert on the object) to decipher the inscription. To ensure Connors' cooperation, Silvermane has also captured Connors' wife and son, and stashed them at another location--in the custody of Caesar Cicero ("Big C" to his associates, despite his short height), a Maggia lawyer who has aspirations for Silvermane's position and is impatient for Silvermane to kick the bucket.

Whatever the tablet's secret, Silvermane is prepared to go to great lengths to unlock it--and more, to be the one to benefit from it. Due to his age and deteriorating condition, time is of the essence for Silvermane--an apt way to phrase the situation since, in these final two issues of this story, we'll discover that his plans for survival regard that phrase quite literally.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"Kill Me Once, Shame On You..."

Sometimes all it takes is eleven years to recycle a good whodunit--in this case, two separate stories featuring the death of Nick Fury, before the shocked eyes of Captain America!

But the real question is: does the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. really cash his chips, or do our eyes deceive us?

The short answer is: BOTH. But let's get to the bottom of this.

In the first story from 1967, our assassin is dropped off near the barbershop which SHIELD uses as a decoy for access to their underground base. (Some decoy.) And while the approaching Captain America closes in as quickly as possible, he isn't in time to prevent the killer from carrying out his deadly task.

But while Cap has failed to prevent the death of his friend, he rises to his feet to make sure that Fury's killer pays for his crime.

Cap has a tough time with this super-strong, super-tough foe, but he has the drive and the motivation to make sure this bruiser answers for Fury's death. It's only after he finally lands the haymaker that puts the brute down when he finds out who has sent this assassin--and guess who's up and around to relay that information?

I guess you could say that Fury had... wait for it... A CLOSE SHAVE. (Though our poor Life Model Decoy wasn't so lucky.) By the way--did you catch the goof that got through editing in the fight scene above? If you're right, you get a free comic book! (Not really!)

Now let's jump ahead to 1978, where the Red Skull has taken over the SHIELD helicarrier and turned its agents into murderous Red Skull facsimiles, which is definitely going to take a bite out of agent morale. Cap is aboard and has battled his way past the agents sent to kill him, and now confronts the real McCoy--but the Skull has a final surprise for his arch-foe.

As we can see, the Skull doesn't waste time with boasting, but immediately enacts his revenge on Cap by forcing him to remain motionless while Fury is put to death. It's a gruesome spectacle, made all the more horrific by the Skull reminding Cap of similar circumstances of helplessness as he watched the death of his young partner. It's a little disturbing to find that Cap can be so distracted in such a moment of crisis, to the point where he's frozen just because a foe has brought up the subject of Bucky. No wonder Fury is so shocked at Cap's inaction. "Yo, Avenger--person dying over here!"

Cap's counterattack would seem to be too little, too late--it even looks like the Skull has one last trick up his sleeve. But what he doesn't have any longer is the master control of his orbiting satellite, which Cap confiscates and uses to put an end to the Skull's plan for the world--and the act triggers the true story behind the Skull's last deception.

Good grief! Those Life Model Decoys have it rough, don't they? Talk about cannon fodder. We don't know where the Skull really is--but with this facsimile of him reverting to Fury with the satellite's destruction, we can assume that the other agents on board are back to normal, as well. And with one heck of a craving for bratwurst and sauerkraut.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Agent Carter, Reporting For Duty!

As much as I felt Jack Kirby veered off course in his treatment of the Captain America book when he assumed creative control of the title upon his return to Marvel in 1976--as well as radically altering the characterization of its principal characters--I found myself nevertheless admiring his turnaround on Sharon Carter, Steve Rogers' girlfriend and former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., whom Kirby at first had pigeon-holed into a civilian woman who moped on the sidelines about her super-hero boyfriend's responsibilities not allowing the two of them to lead a normal life, to the point of becoming something of a shrew on the matter.

But that all changes when Cap is later abducted and Sharon is sidelined by exposure to the tranquilizer gas used to take him. The SHIELD regional director, stalled in the Arnim Zola matter, decides to bring Sharon back into harness as an agent to crack the case--and Kirby's treatment of former Agent 13 gives Sharon Carter responsibilities of her own. And woe be to whoever she's gunning for, because... don't mess with an agent who's going into action sporting a new coiffure.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Danger! Danger! Danger!

When the villain known as Warhawk infiltrated the Xavier school and attacked the X-Men through their Danger Room, our PPOC mini-review of that issue focused more on a general look at the story (and character) as a whole, but leaving out one tiny bit of excitement:

Namely:  How the HECK did the new X-Men survive the Danger Room's attack on them--at lethal force?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Monstrous Mind of Arnim Zola!

Unsurprisingly, there were a number of creations from Jack Kirby's work produced at Marvel during his return in the late 1970s which proved to have staying power, going on to be included in other titles and stories well after Kirby's second and final departure from the company. Which is one reason why one of them, Arnim Zola, could never be featured as a mystery villain here at the PPOC, especially given his distinctive and well-recognized features.

A Swiss scientist with ties to Nazi Germany during the war, Zola, like Nathaniel Essex (a/k/a Mr. Sinister), made strides in genetic engineering well ahead of his time. As a scientist lacking a moral compass and conducting near-horrific experiments, Zola's introduction could have taken place in practically any of the titles Kirby was working on as writer/artist (with perhaps the exception of Devil Dinosaur); but Kirby had a particularly sinister plot in mind for Zola in the pages of Captain America, a book which Kirby was unfortunately having his share of problems with at the time.

Since the 1940s, of course, Zola's expertise with genetics had only grown more prolific--for instance, the creation of humanoids capable of morphing into any shape as well as possessing incredible strength and other abilities. Even his castle has been recreated as an almost living entity, still appearing as a traditional structure but its every stone and wall responding to Zola's wishes. (Today's entrepreneurs dabbling in "smart homes" obviously need to aim a little higher.)

While the character of Zola might benefit from a detailed origin which explains his fantastic appearance and the reasons behind it in greater detail, Kirby significantly curtails Zola's history and provides the character with only the basics needed--where he comes from, what he's doing, and why he changed his appearance. It's perhaps one of the most uninspired origin stories you could imagine for a character that, from his appearance, would seem to have been given a great deal of thought by his creator.

In essence, Zola fashioned this new body, painstakingly developed a method to transfer his personality, and then killed himself in order to better protect himself against being harmed by his experiments. The fact that he later developed a control module which had the same ability as his new brain's mental power must be keeping him up at night. (Though sleep is likely something he's also done away with.)

Zola first appeared when Cap was in battle with a Central American despot known as the Swine, with the conflict ended after a monstrous creature appeared and fatally dealt with the foe. Cap discovered that the creature was a creation of Zola, who took Cap (as well as the Swine's rebellious cousin, Donna Maria Puentes) into custody and returned with them to his Swiss castle. The two are effectively Zola's prisoners; but in Cap's case, Zola seems to already have Cap in mind for a procedure, one which has been sponsored by a villain with a distinctive feature of his own.

It's hard to say whether the Skull's sudden presence in the book is an attempt by Kirby to placate those readers who have been crying out for Cap to be more integrated with other characters in the Marvel universe, as opposed to Kirby's preference to isolate him in order to presumably allow him to grow as the character that he envisions. That said, and in spite of the somewhat juvenile dialog in these particular panels, the Skull is developed reasonably well for the remainder of his appearance in the book--though he's shown the exit rather suddenly, perhaps due to Kirby's time on the book drawing to a close, with just four more issues of Captain America before making his own exit.

It's at this point in Zola's story where Cap encounters "Nazi-X," another Zola creation but also the pinnacle of his plan (with the Skull's blessing), one which dates back to the last days of the war.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Explosive Debut of... Blastaar!

1967 took the Fantastic Four comic through an awesome year of adventure, helmed by the Lee/Kirby/Sinnott team that was still going strong. The beginning of that year saw the team plunged into battle with the cosmic-powered Dr. Doom; in the summer, they would go on to encounter both the Kree sentry and that race's deliverer of final judgment, Ronan the Accuser; soon afterward, they would come into conflict with the group of scientists responsible for the creation of Him; and to close out the year, the Thing would once again be turned against his friends, this time as a pawn of the mad Thinker.

But while Spring in the real-world New York City of '67 was ushered in with a late snowstorm that had New Yorkers sledding down hills and shoveling snow off their walkways and cars, things were heating up for the FF around that time with a sensational two-part story that introduced a brand-new villain--Blastaar, the Living Bomb Burst--who would join forces with one of the team's deadliest enemies and engage the FF in pitched battle in the city's streets.

And things were already looking pretty bad for the FF from their prior issue, when the Sandman launched a brazen attack against them within their headquarters that had them on the ropes and left Reed Richards hopelessly stranded in the Negative Zone and minutes away from his end. Shoveling snow off the Baxter Building roof probably seemed infinitely preferable to Reed, under the circumstances.

As the next issue opens, the remaining members of the FF are caught in a state of frustration and helplessness, unable to think of any way to help their leader avoid certain death, as his course takes him closer to the exploding atmosphere surrounding the Earth that exists in negative space. Of all times for an event which would normally be a cause for celebration to occur: the return of Crystal, who, along with the rest of the Inhumans, has escaped imprisonment from behind the barrier that had surrounded their Great Refuge, and who teleports into FF headquarters to reunite with Johnny Storm. She learns the grim news involving the FF's leader almost immediately--but she also offers some slim hope for Reed's rescue.

(And a No-Prize is waiting for you if you can deduce the solution to Reed's dilemma that both Crystal and the FF have completely overlooked in this scene!)

Meanwhile, it turns out the so-called Living Bomb-Burst has been busy wreaking havoc on one of the Zone's populated worlds--but finally subdued and taken prisoner, though too dangerous and powerful to be dealt with through conventional means. The mission the crew of a transport are charged with is to dump this deadly foe in the same debris belt that Reed is hurtling toward, and letting the deadly atmospheric explosions solve their problem for them. Coincidentally, Blastaar's drop-off point turns out to be far too close for comfort for Reed, though he remains unaware of his danger. (As if he needs any more danger coming his way at this point.)

Back on the Earth of our universe, Crystal has brought the FF's dire problem to Black Bolt, who assigns Triton to pierce the Zone in order to track Reed's location and rescue him--and in the nick of time, too. But what of Blastaar?

Yikes! Reed and Triton have picked up a hitchhiker and don't even realize it! It's a happy homecoming for Reed, to be sure--but what fate awaits the Earth?

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