Monday, October 14, 2019

Apostle Of The Aged!

With both Daredevil and Sub-Mariner hitting the spinner racks in November of 1971--the month that Marvel briefly increased both the size and pricing of a number of their issues before shifting them all back to a regular-sized format the following month--you might think that artist Gene Colan, who pencilled both titles, would be a little frazzled at having to gear up and turn in nearly twice the page count of work for each of those issues that month. Fortunately, Colan caught a break, with the Daredevil story amounting to just nineteen pages while the rest of the issue was supplemented with a Thing/Human Torch reprint from a Strange Tales story from mid-1965--which left Colan free to focus on the additional fourteen pages for Sub-Mariner, his first story in Namor's solo series to begin what would be a seven-issue run.

Yet with the character of Namor floundering a bit following the departure of writer Roy Thomas from the book, it was hard to imagine a 34-page story would amount to much, even with Colan's return to a character he was by this time well familiar with. Thus far, the only direction for Namor was that which Thomas had set him on at the closing of his final scripted issue of Sub-Mariner--his search for his human father, though already sidetracked by tepid encounters with a mutant named Turalla (wrapping up a two-part crossover begun in Daredevil) followed by a rather bizarre mortal foe by the name of, I kid you not, "Aunt Serr," a threat which somehow rated a two-part tale. But while "Mindquake!" virtually spins its wheels and does fairly little except to tie up a loose end from the Turalla story, it nevertheless continues showing us a Sub-Mariner who no longer is buffered by his Atlantean subjects and saddled with a responsibility for his former kingdom's safety and future. Arguably, that may be its only selling point--aside from the issue's extra 14 pages, for which the reader has been assured by the announcement of this new format is quite a bargain.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Today's Pinch Hitter: The Monstroid!

How surprising that in all this time we've seen so little of the Monstroid, an alien robot so named by the Puppet Master when he had the good fortune of finding and taking control of it after its ship had crashed outside of his cabin. An experimental construct created by the Skrulls to use as a scout during the Kree-Skrull War, Ballox (his Skrull designation) appeared in a 1972 Marvel Team-Up story and was subsequently rendered inactive when its link to the Puppet Master was severed by the Vision; but its debut proved that it could be useful in any number of stories where a villain needed a bruiser to do their bidding. (Off the top of my head, seeing the Wizard draft it as part of a new Frightful Four lineup was a story waiting to happen.)

Yet the Monstroid's final active appearance in a Marvel comic (to my knowledge) occurred nearly three years after the Team-Up story--only this time it didn't face Spider-Man in battle, but the living weapon of K'un Lun. (Who, if he could, would probably be down with having Luke Cage as his wingman right about now.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Call Him... Genesis!

It's probably news to you (as it certainly was to myself) that, according to Doctor Strange writer Steve Englehart*, all mystic energy in the universe is finite, and must be shared among all who understand its use; ergo, the more magicians there are in a certain time period, the less mystical energy one could claim and wield. In reading stories featuring Strange, I had been of the notion that it was the more learned sorcerer who possessed more might, in practice if not on paper. Yet in a previous Englehart story, it always seemed odd to me that the Ancient One, upon his passing, could "bequeath" his mystic powers to his disciple, Dr. Strange, as if they were physical assets one could arrange to transfer upon death.  At the time, I regarded that as the Ancient One passing on his accumulated mystic knowledge to Strange (along the lines of the often-quoted passage attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, "knowledge is power"), which seemed to make the most sense considering that the Ancient One had little power to spare by the time he met his maker. Otherwise, we're left to assume that the Ancient One was keeping all of his power that he'd accumulated over the centuries tucked away in a vault back in his Himalayan temple, mystically triggered for release to Strange at the time of his death.

*Though if an earlier Doctor Strange writer actually established this, do chime in and bring it to my attention.

Nevertheless, Englehart's unofficial creed of mystic energy ties in with--or, rather, appears designed to accommodate--the two-part 1974 story that took place in Marvel Premiere which involves Sise-Neg, a sorcerer who has travelled into the past from the 31st century. In his scheme, Sise-Neg means to take control of all available mystic energy from selected eras as he goes further back in time, so that, when he at last reaches the dawn of creation, all mystic energy in existence will be in his exclusive possession, making him all-powerful and capable of reshaping to his liking all that is to come. But two other sorcerers are along for the ride: Baron Mordo, who hopes to win Sise-Neg's trust and thus assure himself of favorable status in the universe born of Sise-Neg's will... and Dr. Strange, who began this journey with the intent of stopping Mordo from taking such action himself but must now also take the unexpected danger from Sise-Neg into account.

Part 1 of this story is further evidence of Dr. Strange being well on track to returning as a viable character in the Marvel stable, as Englehart and artist Frank Brunner continue to inject new life into the mystic master with engaging stories featuring excellent characterization and (you'll excuse the term) spellbound artwork. And now, as we continue to Part 2, Sise-Neg proceeds on the final leg of his journey backward through time, with Strange and Mordo virtually perched on each shoulder as a kind of angel/devil pairing--one acting as Sise-Neg's conscience and imploring him to see the value of human life, the other self-serving and urging him to follow his instincts in treating humanity with contempt. With each stop on that journey, Sise-Neg materializes in order to take possession of whatever mystical energy at that point in time attracts his attention--and in so doing, provides both Mordo and Strange with an opportunity to win his trust, and affect his choices.

The particular time period which the story first deals with is presumably the late 5th century, specifically in what was then Britain, as elements of King Arthur's reign are encountered--with Merlin's power being the likely source of Sise-Neg's interest. Unfortunately, Mordo appears well-versed in the legends of Camelot--and he uses the tragedy of its principal residents as fodder for strengthening his position with Sise-Neg.

Strike One for Strange--and as he rightly notes, he can't afford to keep giving Mordo opportunities to sway a sorcerer who is on track to becoming a deity.

Monday, October 7, 2019

This Sorcerer, Supreme!

Following the defeat of the prehistoric horror known as Shuma-Gorath, and the loss of his teacher, the Ancient One, Dr. Strange formally succeeded his mentor by ascending to the position of Earth's "Sorcerer Supreme," a title never before used in reference to the Ancient One but which would be virtually written in stone from that point on and applied often in future Doctor Strange stories, with Strange now the preeminent sorcerer on Earth.  The end of the Shuma-Gorath saga capped a successful return from near-oblivion in comics for the character, which a previous appearance in Marvel Feature (alongside the Defenders) helped to secure.

Subsequent to getting his bearings after the Ancient One's passing and coming to terms with his new role, Strange went on to make a notable if ill-fated attempt to mend fences with Baron Mordo, his enemy almost from Day One of his arrival at the Ancient One's Himalayan temple where he'd once hoped to find the help he needed to regain the life he'd lived before a car accident robbed him of the use of his surgeon's hands. Only now, Mordo was nowhere to be found at his castle in Transylvania--while Strange fell victim to Lilia, a gypsy woman who sought to use him to get her past the defenses of Castle Mordo and reclaim a book which the wily Mordo obtained from her through duplicity. Strange was eventually released from his enslavement to Lilia--but upon closer examination of her book, which was written by the 18th century sorcerer known as Cagliostro, he discovered that Mordo had ventured into time itself in order to change the past and thereby assure his own ascendance over Strange's new stature.

And so Strange immediately sets out to pursue his old foe through time. But what awaits them both is someone neither he nor Mordo are expecting to encounter: another mystic, who has his own reason for traveling backward in time, and his own future to reshape.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Test At Your Own Risk

Over time, the limits of the incredible Hulk's power, like those of Wolverine's healing factor, have reached such levels that the notion no longer seems to apply. So with that in mind, it might be interesting to briefly look back and recall the instances where the Hulk's strength was still being charted, though the surprising aspect turned out to be that our pioneers in those instances were villains--who, granted, were serving their own ends more than science, but were also doing so at considerable risk to themselves.

No doubt the Leader was eager to explore the makeup of the Hulk, given that he, himself, was also affected by a freak gamma-ray explosion. But even the enhanced mind of the Leader was daunted by the sheer power of the Hulk.

The standards we've seen here--high voltage, temperature extremes, even gas--weren't always adhered to over the years, nor could they have been since there were so many stories that called for the Hulk's capture. But as the Leader notes, perhaps we can attribute that to his lab having limited resources to sufficiently conduct a thorough testing. A later joint army/scientific venture designed to capture and contain the Hulk, for instance, had better luck with subduing him with high voltage:

(That's what you get for building your lab in the middle of the desert, Leader.)

Then there was the Gremlin, whose facility in Siberia was provided by the Russin government and spared no expense to give this brilliant prodigy any resources he needed to facilitate his weapons research. In the Hulk's case, he sought to adapt the Hulk's strength and durability to his armored "super-trooper" forces, which of course called for rigorous testing.

In some cases, it's clear that the Gremlin was covering ground that the Leader had already touched on--though since both their bases were isolated as well as being separated by great distance, that's hardly surprising. What was unusual here is the premise that gas treatments would in effect ensure the Hulk's cooperation, which doesn't really add up. Why should he? In the Leader's case, the Hulk, partially in control of by Banner, was obliged to repay the Leader for surgically removing a bullet lodged in his brain--but the Hulk was a captive of the Gremlin, pure and simple.

Though circumstances would eventually deprive the Gremlin of even a cooperative Hulk.

Yet it was our old friend the Mandarin who would most effectively put the Hulk through his paces in order to receive a thorough demonstration of the Hulk's power and abilities--an easy thing to arrange, if you're willing to come under attack!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Revenge, Times Two!

The Mandarin is out for revenge against the Hulk! To wit:

But after his failure to use the Hulk to ignite worldwide nuclear war, the Mandarin is looking for an ally against the green behemoth, which is where the Sandman comes in--a formidable super-villain who has recently recovered from his defeat at the hands of the Fantastic Four after his alliance with Blastaar didn't pan out as he'd hoped. Yet Blastaar, though a loose cannon, impressed the Sandman enough to make him want to team up with him again--so much so that he's planning to hijack the Air Force's new space-warp ship* so that he can make contact with Blastaar in the Negative Zone. (Either the Sandman is shooting in the dark in hoping that this new ship can somehow access the Negative Zone**, or we aren't giving those Air Force engineers enough credit.)

*Breakthroughs in technology in 1969 included the first Concorde test flight; the successful Apollo 11 moon landing; the first quartz watch; the first automatic teller machine; the development of UNIX; the invention of the microprocessor; and, it seems, the first space-warp ship.

**Is there actually a "NEGATIVE ZONE" setting on the control console?

To initiate his plan, the Sandman stumbles across someone he thinks will make the perfect distraction to occupy the soldiers on the missile base where the ship is stored, so that he can make his heist. He only needs to be convinced to cooperate--villain-style.

Having never faced the Hulk, the Sandman's confidence in his own might to prevail against him is perhaps understandable at this point. Still, his goal here is to coerce the Hulk into helping him get his sandy hands on that ship--and manipulating the Hulk into falling for an act is apparently as easy as it ever was to pull off.

(It'll no doubt be news to Betty Brant that the Hulk has a thing for her.)

The Sandman's plan works like a charm, as he meets only minimal resistance in taking the ship. But a complication arises when he makes the mistake of trying to ram the car that Betty Ross is driving--and since Betty Brant has never been any competition for Betty Ross in the Hulk's mind, the Sandman quickly finds that his ally has become his enemy.

In the meantime, the space-warp ship has become "the missile" off-panel, which would at least explain why something developed by the Air Force is being stored at an Army missile base. On the other hand, it's now anyone's guess why the Sandman would want to steal a missile, which wouldn't help him vis-à-vis Blastaar or the Negative Zone.

As for the battle, we have to give the Sandman props for maintaining his cool throughout this fight, having confidence in his invincibility and believing all the while that he'll eventually crush the Hulk. What's not quite registering with him is that the Hulk feels the same about him.

Which brings us full circle, as we now return to the Mandarin--and the ally he'll make use of to attain his own goal.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Clash Of The Storm Gods!

Brief but fierce, Thor's clash with Zeus during the Olympian ruler's attack on the Avengers was riveting in both story and art, and remains one of my favorite meetings of the two--one of my few favorites, as it turns out, since the adversarial meetings between these two storm gods were quite rare, to my knowledge. Only once before did the two meet in battle, during the mythical ten-year siege of Troy by the Achaeans (or the Argives, as they're referred to in the Marvel story) which is set in motion when Paris, Prince of Troy, elopes with Helen, the queen of Sparta, and returns with her to his walled city--thus causing a coalition of Greeks to set sail for Troy in order to seek a mixture of justice and revenge for this affront.

It's a young Thor, still cocky and impulsive, who enters the picture when his half-brother, Loki, explores a dark fissure (on his own impulse) which Thor recognizes as the same type which once led him to Olympus and a first-time meeting with Hercules; and so Thor pursues Loki, but to no avail, as Thor's path displaces him in time and deposits him, bereft of memory, in what is today northwest Turkey and a small distance from ancient Troy, where he is befriended by the young man named Aeneas and escorted inside. Along the way, Aeneas, one of the allies of Troy during this conflict, tells Thor the entire tale of the war with the Greeks which, at this point, is nearly in its ninth year; and having seen Thor's strength, Aeneas notes that Thor would be a valued ally to the Trojans, though Thor declines the offer for the time being.

That is, until he witnesses the battle outside the city between Paris and Helen's husband, Menelaus--a match which results in the gravely wounded Paris being saved by the goddess Aphrodite, a sight which returns Thor's memories in full and has him following her on her return to Olympus. The Olympians have been closely observing the Trojan war, though Zeus has forbidden any interference on their part; still, as is evident, several in Zeus's court have covertly participated and taken sides in the conflict, with Aphrodite and Ares aiding Troy but Athena and Hera siding with the Greeks. And when Thor spots Athena's apparent efforts to have one of the Lycian allies slay Menelaus, Thor acts to deflect the deadly arrow--but in so doing, shatters the fragile truce between Troy and the Greeks, and causing all-out war to erupt on the battlefield, as Athena truly intended.

Yet it's the near-fatal injury to Aeneas in that carnage which causes Thor to pick his own side in the conflict--and the sight does not please one who still strives for the gods' neutrality.

And so, despite the continued interference of his own subjects in the battle, Zeus's tunnel vision zeroes in on the more overt influence at hand--a force which could swiftly reveal the gods' hand in this war beyond all doubt, despite the Thunder God's subterfuge, and which now demands his direct intervention.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Loose Ends and Revelations!

Having recently raised an eyebrow at a Defenders tale which featured the return of Dracula to the land of the (un)living--the sight of which registered hardly any shock at all with Dr. Strange, even though the sorcerer had believed he had seen to Dracula's final death in a prior encounter--writer Roger Stern's later "fix" for that slight oversight brought to mind a number of other instances where writers were obliged to be creative in convoluted plots that were rather difficult to accept at face value, or, as was the case with Strange, a character needed to be extracted from a "tight spot" that was inadvertently left hanging and never resolved.

Following are a few such instances that sprang to mind for me, and I feel certain that many of you have some of your own to share, so please feel free to put on your thinking caps along with yours truly.  :D

In terms of convoluted plots, it's hard to top this little gem, which opened the door to a virtual tsunami of clone convolution that went on for decades.

Send in the clones--and send them Marvel did, starting with Gwen, who turns out to be the creation of the Jackal, a.k.a. Prof. Miles Warren, who took the original Gwen's death quite hard and decided in his deranged mind that it need not be the case.

How a clone of Gwen emerged with all of the original's memories is anyone's guess; it certainly qualifies for an entry in the PPC's Weird Science category, to be sure. The success of the Gwen-clone (and, hard on her heels, the Peter-clone) storyline spawned clone stories ad nauseam. Gwen's clone even caused a little convolution of her own down the line, giving birth to twins who were manipulated into seeking revenge against Spider-Man for their mother's death. And the identity of their father? Norman Osborn. That's right, you heard me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"The Avengers Take Over!"

By the end of Part One of the PPC review of the two-part Fantastic Four tale from 1964 which featured the rematch (and a more prolonged battle) between the Thing and the incredible Hulk, the situation looked pretty dismal for the entire FF, who did their best under the circumstances to stop the Hulk's rampage through New York City but were overwhelmed by the sheer power of their foe. As things now stand:

  • Reed Richards, debilitated from exposure to chemicals which he'd used in a serum intended to change the Thing back to his human form of Ben Grimm (you dodged a bullet there, Ben), was unable to join his team against the Hulk and has now been hospitalized, where he remains in critical condition;
  • Sue Storm, regaining consciousness after her force field proved too weak to stand the strain of battling the Hulk, has returned to be at Reed's side, bringing to his medical team the chemicals he'd been working with in the hope that an antidote can be found for the virus afflicting him;
  • Johnny Storm, also hospitalized due to injuries sustained in his own fight with the Hulk, lies in recovery; and last but by no means least,
  • Ben Grimm, the mighty but overtaxed Thing, struggles to get to his feet after having fallen to the Hulk and pushes himself to continue the fight against all odds.

Judging by the team's near-desperate state, and the shocking title to the second half of this story (which leads off this post), the reader could be forgiven for thinking that even the FF would be forced to face reality here and hand off their own issue to the Avengers in order to see the Hulk's threat dealt with. But let's not count out Marvel's premiere super-team just yet!

At least not until the Hulk kayos the Thing with that right fist he's wound up.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Power of the Hulk!

Whenever I lay eyes on the classic two-part Fantastic Four tale from 1964 which features the rematch between the Thing and the incredible Hulk (while also dealing in the Avengers), I've found myself thinking how artist Jack Kirby might have handled this story had it been released three years later in 1967, when his style of artistry had hit its stride--panels filled with background which gave the setting more depth, room to let the letterer run wild with explosive sound effects, and pacing which the reader thrilled to with each turn of the page. A Thing/Hulk rematch deserved no less; a battle which saw the Hulk more than hold his own against both the FF and the Avengers practically demanded it.

And in my mind's eye I could see more than Kirby unleashed--I could also easily envision a two-part story expanded to four issues, this time with none other than inker Joe Sinnott joining forces with Kirby:

  • The end of Part 1 would have the Torch on the losing end of a battle with the Hulk after making an attempt to put a stop to his rampage following his arrival in New York, while the rest of the FF deal with the emergency of Reed falling victim to a dangerous virus;
  • Part 2 sees the Thing begin his struggle against the Hulk, with Johnny hospitalized and Sue sidelined while trying to save him--the last page having the Thing finally taken down, with the Hulk shouting his defiance to the city and vowing to destroy the Avengers next;
  • In Part 3, the Thing re-engages the Hulk, near exhaustion but rallying to give the Hulk a continued fight that even the green goliath in his rage can't bring himself to believe, with the Torch racing to his side to briefly join forces before the Hulk at last deals with them--the issue ending as the Hulk at last confronts the Avengers;
  • And finally, in Part 4, the Avengers make a fierce but futile effort to prevent the Hulk from taking Rick Jones captive-while elsewhere, an antidote to the dangerous chemicals which he came into contact with allows Reed to recover enough to join his partners in the city and make plans to tackle the Hulk, regardless of how the Avengers feel about it.

And as long as we're indulging in a make-believe scenario: After reader reaction to this revised tale has buried the Marvel offices under an avalanche of mail filled with praise for both story and art, and sales of Fantastic Four have defied all expectations, Kirby sits down with Stan Lee and publisher Martin Goodman and renegotiates both his pay and the rights to his material--perfect timing, as it turned out, with everyone signing on the dotted line a little over a year before Goodman would sell his Magazine Management Company (Marvel's parent company) to what would become Cadence Industries.  The deal leaves Kirby sitting pretty in a new ten-year contract, Marvel's only condition of the deal and adding up to a win-win for the artist.

Such was not to be, of course--except for possibly the mail filled with praise part, though even with a two-page letters section it wasn't even a deluge, much less burying, since roughly 60% of the mail printed dealt with other, unrelated subjects. But we won't let that stop us from diving into this ambitious tale which would pit the incredible Hulk against not only members of the Fantastic Four, but the Avengers, as well. But come on, it's the billing on the marquee that captures the reader's attention on this one.

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