Monday, February 20, 2017

"This Is A Double-Zero Priority--Code: Blue!"

The concept of Code: Blue is one that could easily have sprung from the mind of Jack Kirby: A collection of crusty men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances by their line of work and relying on their grit, determination, and overall cockiness to see them through--a diverse group of unsung heroes who came in and did the job, no questions asked, having no powers or advantages in battle other than their quick thinking and fighting heart. Code: Blue was conceived and created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, but you could almost swear it was Kirby's words coming from the characters' mouths, so closely do the wisecracks and general back-and-forth of the dialog mirror his style of writing. DeFalco, in perhaps a tip of the hat to Kirby, even at times places emphasis on the wrong words in their speech, presumably in an attempt to inject a sense of personality into the character(s)--a scripting quirk which drove me absolutely nuts when reading one of Kirby's stories and which DeFalco brings to Code: Blue to a certain degree.

Code: Blue is led by Lt. Marc Stone, who had already made his mark in carrying out his duty for the N.Y.P.D. and, from his experiences in the field, has seen the need for a special SWAT unit to be established for dealing with super-villains. To what end isn't really clear--even Stone was unsure at the time that such a unit would be able to cope with the level of threat that a super-powered villain posed. Code: Blue seems to function best by taking the heat off of the super-hero(es) already on the scene; but also working in their favor is that whatever villain they're facing is usually in the habit of underestimating them, which gives the unit a small window to play on that disbelief and accomplish their mission. If nothing else, you have to give Stone and his team props for suiting up and bringing both confidence and skills to whatever situation they're ordered to deal with, whatever the odds against them.

And what Code: Blue brings to the table isn't insubstantial by any means, just as is the case with any SWAT team; it's just difficult at times to see what sets them apart. From their early encounters, they would appear to have no special training outside of that received by their peers; they have no Stark-designed weaponry; they've studied no dossiers of known, at-large villains; nor are they specially prepared to encounter super-powers. Rather, they seem to simply go in and adjust their tactics on the fly, depending on the details they get when the zero-zero call (alleged super-criminal activity) comes in. So what makes standard SWAT teams fall below the par of Code: Blue? Whatever distinguishes Stone's unit will have to be seen on the job.

And so as they're presented to us, Code: Blue might remind you of a line from the 1965 film In Harm's Way, when Adm. Tory asks Col. Gregory if his para-marines are in shape for a parachute drop: "Maybe they're a little bit rusty, sir, but they're eager as hell!" It's an impression that Stone will have to take to heart, since their baptism of fire is at hand.

Come on, this team just reeks of Kirby!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Paws Up, Troll--You're Under Arrest!

It isn't often when the mortal characters in comics can hold their own, or even manage to survive, when facing the super-villains who couldn't care less about causing collateral damage (human or otherwise) when battling the hero(es) they face. If the bystander is lucky, they're able to escape the carnage--or perhaps the hero on the scene is able to save them from meeting an untimely death. But there are others who aren't content to be bystanders, and instead take a more active role in a conflict where lives are in danger--such as Wyatt Wingfoot, or Eric Masterson, or Rick Jones, or certainly those on the police force whose duty and dedication puts them in harm's way.

One officer who excels in both duty and dedication is Lt. Marc Stone, who went on to propose and lead the Code: Blue special ops unit of the force but whose commitment to collaring criminals had already made him a respected police detective, whose job always came first. But a year before he would form the group that would pit himself and those he led against the some of the fiercest super-villains in New York, Stone was reordering his priorities in order to appease his wife's wish that he leave his dangerous job. Is Lt. Stone the type of man to walk away from the force? For a man who values commitment in doing what's right and what's necessary--a man who also made that commitment to his family--it would seem so.

Yet the true turning point for Stone comes when Ulik, the fierce rock troll who has challenged Thor on many occasions, is loose on the streets after a battle with the Thunder God that forced him to withdraw, leaving the police on the scene to try to contain him. It's no surprise that Ulik is too much for any mortal force to deal with--but one mortal is determined to try, and, more than that, determined to succeed.

It was the first improbable contest between Stone and Ulik--a heroic feather in Stone's cap, though clearly Stone's thoughts are focused on what his wife's reaction will be to his resignation forms being hurled to the wind. Yet apparently the clash between these two struck such a chord with writer Tom DeFalco that he followed up with the pair three years later, when Stone led Code: Blue to Asgard itself in response to a member of his team being injured during Ulik's escape from custody.

When the team locates Ulik and the assault begins, Stone is separated from the rest of the unit--but to no one's surprise (and certainly not the reader's), he presses on by himself.

By this point, there is enough history between Ulik and Stone that Ulik now feels enmity for his mortal pursuer, though it contrasts with Stone's single-minded goal of recapturing this "criminal" and not allowing him to get away scot-free in light of the callous injuries he's inflicted. The only thing they share in common as a result is their intent to prevail--which, along with the overwhelming advantage one of these combatants has over the other, makes this struggle a riveting one. In the end, it's hard to tell which of these two exhibits the most tenacity.

Stone would have no choice here but to resolve himself to the fact that his "suspect" got away--though no one could argue that he didn't acquit himself with distinction.

And speaking of mortals who take on Ulik...

Thanks to alert reader M.P., who had pointed out Ulik's clash with another mortal gunning for him, let's take a quick look at a Marvel Knights story from 2000, where we find Daredevil and the Punisher dealing with a group of trolls (led by Ulik) who are trying to recover an Asgardian artifact by bringing down the New York building where it's being held. Apparently the suits upstairs aren't keen on parting with it, even with their building crumbling all about them--and so Daredevil heads off to convince them, while the Punisher assesses the threat of his targets, as only he can.

It stands to reason that the Punisher has similar experience to Stone's when it comes to weaponry and tactics, and he's probably packing a good deal of heat and ammo to spare, though the Punisher of course has no interest in 'cuffing Ulik and taking him in--quite the opposite. But can the Punisher's methods of "punishment" inflict the damage on Ulik that the hammer of Thor is capable of? Probably not, but it isn't for lack of trying.

It's safe to say that the writing is on the wall as far as the Punisher's chances of pulling this one out. He's running out of options, out of ammo, and out of time.  But you know Frank Castle--if he's going down, he's going to take the Punisher with him. Again, probably not. Fortunately, Daredevil's time has been productive, and the Punisher will live to fight another day, though with Ulik's gloating words ringing in his ears.  But that's better than a detonation at point-blank range.


Lt. Stone's clash with Ulik offers an opportunity to size up two full-page KA-POWs between artists John Buscema and Ron Frenz--the latter artist appearing to swipe pay homage to the former's style, though in his Thor work Frenz clearly made the rounds with other artists in that respect. Whose chin had the sorest bruise here--Thor, or Ulik?

The debut of Code: Blue!

Will they make a difference? Will they spin off to their own comic?
(Yes and no.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

At The Command of The Leader!

When the villainous quartet known as the U-Foes returned for yet another rematch with the incredible Hulk, they faced a new form of their foe--the "hybrid" Hulk that represents a more complete merging of the Hulk and Bruce Banner following Banner's resolution of his rage issues with his father. So far, the U-Foes' track record with the Hulk hasn't exactly been a stellar one, having been defeated by three different versions of the Hulk on three separate occasions:

And now, the U-Foes have invaded the Nevada-based headquarters of the organization known as the Pantheon, which the Hulk has become affiliated with--a Hulk who is now Banner in essence but not so in appearance or manner, a blend of man and man-monster who remains rational and brilliant but who embraces and even revels in the Hulk's power. Interestingly, the one version of the Hulk the U-Foes might have stood a chance against was the one they were never allowed to face--the gray Hulk, who demonstrated more ruthlessness and intelligence than that of his jade predecessor but didn't match the sheer power of the Hulk who once stormed about the countryside in ignorance and fury. In certain respects, the U-Foes have never faced a more dangerous Hulk than they do this particular day.  Yet they have good reason to feel confident that this encounter will be different--or, rather, reasons--which we'll discover shortly.

We catch up to the Hulk as he and his three associates from the Pantheon--Ulysses, Hector, and Paris--have wrapped up their affairs in Las Vegas and are returning to the Mount, only to find that their stronghold has been breached. And as they investigate, there are familiar indications in the pattern of attack that lead the Hulk to conclude that he may be the target again of four very persistent foes--but he'll find that he's only half right.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Avengers vs. The U-Foes vs. The Avengers!

If you thought you'd seen the last of the uncanny U-Foes after their disastrous third meeting with the incredible Hulk, you probably had every reason for assuming that to be the case. When last we saw them, the U-Foes, a quartet of super-powered villains who sought to surpass the Fantastic Four in strength but were thwarted in that goal by Bruce Banner, were each sent against their will to a different alien world to meet a deadly fate, with apparently no hope for salvation. Yet the U-Foes had survived such death sentences before--and now, the U-Foes resurface over four years later (our time) to menace again. But the Marvel refs behind the scenes cry "three strikes, you're out" on the villains where the Hulk is concerned, pivoting them instead to challenge none other than the mighty Avengers--and it looks like the U-Foes are intending to make a clean sweep of both of the team's coastal branches.

Yet these battles take place six months apart, and for different reasons--with one of those battles being a conflict that the U-Foes were duped into starting. And so in these separate issues, we'll pursue the answers to two questions, among others: How did the U-Foes survive certain death--and what power will manipulate these deadly villains into advancing its own plans for the Avengers?

Friday, February 10, 2017

"Run! Run For Your Lives!"

Given the incredible amount of homage covers we recently saw that have paid tribute to the classic Fantastic Four #1, perhaps the cover's popularity with artists is due in *ahem* large part to the eye-catching mammoth creature that bursts forth from the street at the Mole Man's command. It's a terrifying monster that has made sporadic appearances over the years, with the Mole Man calling on him only on rare occasion; but if we dare, let's take a closer look at this creature who slumbers beneath the Earth and emerges at his master's signal to wreak havoc and destruction on the comparatively flimsy structures of man. And since artist/writer John Byrne has given generous exposure to the behemoth, we'll single his work out and sample two such issues where the monster was allowed to cut loose and amply demonstrate just why the Mole Man values him.

And as always, the effect that the arrival of our raging creature has on the locals is undeniable.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Monster From Beneath Us!

I was recently kicking around the idea of taking a look at all the interesting variations of the cover of Fantastic Four #1, but I'm sure that's a thought that's likely occurred to many others who have no doubt put together their own presentations on this piece of classic artwork. So instead, I spent a little fun time enjoying the variety of posts on the 'net that dived into the subject--and, hoo boy, the results were a virtual treasure trove of variations of that famous cover, artists who were fascinated with a 10¢ mag published in late 1961.

But if I had to pick a site to serve as an example, it would have to be the one presented by Chris Tolworthy, whose site "The Zak McKracken Archive" focuses on the computer game "Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders" but also stores some fun sub-pages--among which was this little gem.

A graphic which represents, oh, a fraction of what Chris has put together on his tribute page--a comprehensive collection of work that pays homage to the artistry and concept of Jack Kirby and (likely) George Klein from that very first FF issue. Have a look! You'll simply be delighted with what you'll find here.

Let's take a peek at two of the above pieces, and see that mega-monster really cut loose!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Vigilante In Vegas!

Given the flak that the Punisher took in the company of Captain America, his first meeting with the incredible Hulk almost seemed like a budding bromance by comparison. At the time of this story's publication in mid-1992, the Hulk's transformation had stabilized to where he was now an amalgam of both Bruce Banner and his brutish alter-ego--going a step further than simply having the Hulk controlled by Banner's mind, the Hulk became the perfect vehicle for writer Peter David's less tragic approach to the character, with Banner perfectly comfortable and confident as the Hulk and even throwing his weight around to an extent in terms of being cocky when confronting an opponent. As a result, the Hulk that the Punisher would cross paths with exhibited none of the shock or judgment of the Punisher's modus operandi in dealing with criminals that Bruce Banner might have shown--and since the story involves the gangster presence in Las Vegas where the Hulk's gray incarnation, "Joe Fixit," acted as an enforcer, the Punisher fit right in with the Hulk's business in the city.

As to the details of that business, the Hulk returns to investigate the murder of his friend and former employer, Michael Berengetti, who ran one of the casinos and had accepted the Hulk into the fold. Berengetti's wife, Suze, believes that a rival businessman, Sam Striker, had Berengetti murdered; and when Striker attempts to strong-arm her into cooperating with his attempts to absorb Berengetti's assets, the Hulk appears and makes it clear that Striker is to back off. Yet the encounter is a stalemate, since Striker is protected by Frost, an imposing freelance hitman who appears to be in the Hulk's class of strength; all the same, Striker departs without pressing the issue, though neither the Hulk nor Striker are aware that the Punisher is in town and gunning for Frost, and will take down both Striker and "Mr. Fixit" if they get in his way.

Within his "ice cream truck" that camouflages a well-equipped surveillance setup, the Punisher continues to keep tabs on the situation while the Hulk's investigation proceeds. Accompanying the Hulk are Ulysses, Paris, and Hector--his associates from the Pantheon, an altruistic organization based in Nevada that's devoted to helping to end war, famine, and pestilence. It's Paris who alerts the group to the presence of the Punisher, though not by name; all they know at present is that the person is a potential hostile, and a dangerous one--an assessment that's more than validated when they take the initiative in flushing him out.

As is evident, the Hulk doesn't give a second thought to the Punisher's methods or that he works outside the law (nor, curiously, do the other Pantheon members raise any concerns), issues which David side-steps completely except for a reference to the man's rap sheet which is added at the story's end almost as an afterthought. As far as the story is concerned at this stage, the Punisher is relegated from this point on to guest-star status, welcomed aboard the Hulk's plans for dealing with Striker and, by extension, Frost.  In the end, the heavy lifting will fall to the Hulk, though David's trademark witticisms will give most of this cast dealt in to one extent or another.

Once the group has touched base with the police, the Hulk is ready to put his plan in motion--one that involves Paris leaking to Striker that Fixit is making a drug deal that evening at a local warehouse. Once Fixit takes delivery, Striker makes his entrance and makes a smooth attempt at blackmail--only instead of putting one over on Fixit, both Striker and Frost find that the tables have been turned on them.

As you might imagine, Striker and Frost aren't the types to go quietly--and a fierce gunfight erupts. The Pantheon focuses on Striker's men, while Striker himself is wounded by gunfire. The Punisher goes after his prime target, Frost; but when Frost successfully holds him off, the Hulk takes over, only to find that Frost more than lives up to his name.

The Hulk and the Punisher would find themselves in the same story once more in three years--though this time, their paths only cross in passing, with the Punisher more obsessed with taking out the one he blames for the death of his family (Nick Fury) while the Hulk, having his own problems with Fury, all but rolls out the red carpet for Castle.

While you can't label the Hulk and the Punisher as enemies, given what we've seen here, it's not really accurate to call them friends, either--more like two men who have found themselves on the same page and teamed up for their mutual benefit, parting company once their business was concluded. The Hulk would likely have rated a favorable footnote in the Punisher's war journal--something of a dubious honor, to be sure.

Incredible Hulk #s 395-396

Script: Peter David
Pencils: Dale Keown
Inks: Mark Farmer
Letterer: Joe Rosen

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