Tuesday, March 11, 2014
With the pieces all in place for things to come to a head at the point where we left X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong, the X-Men were cobbling together something of a plan in order to deal with the Phoenix, which had resurrected Jean Grey for reasons unknown. Hank McCoy (the Beast) had constructed a larger and improved model of the device he once used to briefly contain the Phoenix's power, and Scott Summers was marshalling his troops.
Phoenix has come to Earth following an almost fatal attack by a Shi'ar group which had left it weak and unfocused. To recover its strength, it's once more merged with Jean Grey, and in the process returned her dead corpse to life. In doing so, it's had to deal with a jumble of old memories which have made it seek out a reunion with Scott, though it primarily needs to feed on the power of his optic blasts in order to help regain its strength. Storm and Nightcrawler have also come to assist and are dealing with the Shi'ar, who are now pursuing Quentin Quire, an Omega-level mutant whom they fear may become a host to the Phoenix.
As for the Phoenix, Wolverine has located it and is once again prepared to end its life and its bond with Jean. But Phoenix still needs Cyclops, and it knows that Logan can be a means to that end:
The Shi'ar, to their horror, then detect Phoenix during their reconnaissance and fire on her--but she escapes and transports herself and Logan north, where Jean's essence then becomes dominant. And in a series of merciless attacks, Jean's struggle to find final peace is assisted by the claws of the Wolverine.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Or: "Who Needs A Workforce When You've Got Thor?"
Let's say you're in Asgard while it's under reconstruction after the damage caused by the rampage of the Destroyer. If you're one of Asgard's finest, pitching in, you've certainly got your work cut out for you, with all the monuments and palaces you've got to repair or rebuild. In fact, it looks like none other than Balder the Brave is charged with the task of being Overseer:
Take a good look at that Pillar of Sovereignty. No, we're not interested in making any "size matters" comments about Odin's penchant for *ahem* erecting very large symbols of his rule for all to see. Just focus on the considerable task of putting something that enormous into place with a bunch of pulleys and rope. We're talking about days of work, maybe weeks, even for Asgardians.
Now imagine how the whole operation hinges on the "master cable" staying intact. Maybe these guys should be asking Tony Stark to loan them some of his engineers:
Fortunately, Balder has the God of Thunder for a best friend--who not only saves the day and prevents loss of life, but performs this whole job by himself in a matter of seconds:
I love how Thor simply excuses himself, as if this was but a trifle use of his time. As for Balder--well, why was he doing things the hard way, anyway? If you're tasked with a major repair project, wouldn't you want on your workforce someone who wrote the book on using a hammer?
Saturday, March 8, 2014
The last time we looked in on Jean Grey, she had died.
"Again," you quickly point out. All right, fair enough.
This would make three times Jean had died--though technically it was only twice, since her first death was as the Phoenix while duplicating her form. The Phoenix was more directly involved with Jean (on some level) in her second death (her first "true" death), and more fully merged with her when she died again at the hand of Magneto. I can see your eyes glazing over at this point, and I'm right with you--it all seems so ridiculous when you see it on paper like this. "Only twice." Good grief.
Let's go back a bit to when Jean was recovering from her first transformation into Phoenix (though at the time she actually was Phoenix while thinking she was Jean, but for pity's sake let's not get into all that again). "Jean" asked a question which would echo its way through her convoluted history with Phoenix and land at the doorstep of where we are now:
At the time, "Jean" was under the mistaken impression that she had indeed died on that space shuttle (which I guess might count as another death, eh? Oboy.), but the question never really applied until Wolverine ended her life aboard Asteroid M--after which, Jean and Phoenix were reborn in a state of co-existence. This time, with both Jean and Phoenix aware of each other, Jean was on board with being Phoenix (or, rather, hosting Phoenix), and seemed to set aside any concerns about being brought back from the dead.
Jump ahead to a year (in publication time) after that story concluded, where a new series continues the story of Phoenix, and Jean will be forced to more directly confront the implications of rising from the grave. And the X-Men will find themselves caught up in the struggle.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
I'd certainly be one of the first to admit that there are times when it's difficult to think of just the right title for a blog post--so just imagine a comic book on a monthly deadline, with its writer sometimes stuck for the story's title. As a result, we're going to get the occasional head-scratcher for a title--one that might look great emblazoned at the top of a dramatic splash page, but which is otherwise puzzling in terms of just what the heck the writer is getting at.
To give you a few examples, I chose the Incredible Hulk book at random, and wasn't disappointed. Let's start off with the Hulk's near-match, the Abomination:
In this story, the Abomination's last battle had put him in something of a coma for two years, a state which was broken by an explosion at ground level. The Abomination then battles the Hulk, still thinking that he'd only recently faced him, not realizing that two years have passed. So it's hard to make sense of the title as worded, as incomplete (and inaccurate) as it reads. If it's simply an adaptation of the Richard Dana novel about a two-year sea voyage, the similarity between the two escapes me.
The Juggernaut is similarly affected by wording that doesn't really apply:
If you're thinking that Thor is guest-starring in this issue, no. But aside from that, no one is out to try to kill the Juggernaut; in fact, if the title wanted to come closer to the mark, it might have substituted "stop" for "slay" (and maybe been a bit less Death Be Not Proud about it).
Next we move to outer space, where Counter-Earth orbits on the far side of the sun. And when you have a duplicate Earth, your title choices become exercises in alliteration:
Moving on, surely a review of this type without a title by Roy Thomas would be incomplete:
Leaving little doubt it's adapted from the 1969 film title (from the novel). A letter writer went so far as to call it "the least-inspired story title" they'd ever seen, which is a valid point. Neither the Hulk nor the Valkyrie are being put out of their misery (nor is it even implied that they should be), and none of the events in the story resemble the odd marathon/mock derbies character study of the film. Even Marvel doesn't know what to make of it, responding to the letter writer with "Our title uninspired? Maybe...but, for a comics title, it certainly seemed offbeat to us and many others." I'd only suggest that lauding a title as "offbeat" is hardly a defense; an offbeat title lacking any foundation is a bit like pulling your story title out of a raffle drawing.
Another title with a play on words would be:
As groan-inducing as this title is, it at least has some reasonable connection with the story (though that hardly excuses it). Bruce Banner, at the time cured of becoming the Hulk, lies at death's door, having been shocked into a coma when the robot he'd been interfacing with and using against the Leader was destroyed, sending the deadly feedback straight back to him. It's decided that the only chance of saving his life is to subject him to gamma rays, thereby cursing him once more to be the Hulk.
But the hands-down winner of our little titles tour has to be none other than the Rhino. I'd once thought of the Rhino as mainly a Spider-Man villain--but he's been a major Hulk foe in a number of stories, and he probably deserved more respect when it came time to assign titles to them:
It would have been just awful if the story accompanying this title had featured the Mandarin, wouldn't it. The only "ring" I can see that would apply here is the ring of fire surrounding the Rhino later in the story. But that's too easy an assumption to make, so I'm probably wrong. Feel free to take a whack at it yourself.
This next title appears on the same page as a newspaper headline announcing that Banner and Betty Ross are to be married:
It's actually the Leader who's the one making such a fuss about saying no, though. The Rhino is just hired muscle against the Hulk.
Here's another title that twists around what's really happening:
In that story, the Leader takes over the Rhino's body, and threatens to cause death and destruction at Betty's wedding (this time to Glenn Talbot), just as he did at Banner's. When Jim Wilson tries to intervene, the Rhino/Leader brutally swats him down--and the Hulk is now doubly determined to destroy the Leader. So it's either the Leader's vengeance we're talking about here (in which case you could say the Rhino is enabling him to carry it out), or the Hulk's vengeance against the "Rhino," even though the Leader hasn't yet carried out his plan. It's a good thing the Hulk doesn't take the time to figure it out, or we'd never get anywhere.
And to wrap things up, a story which substitutes Doc Samson in battle against the Rhino:
Which I'm thinking is making some connection (however tenuous) to the fact that the Rhino is out to destroy a train, which is carrying a package he's been hired to recover. ("Train stop," get it?) I refuse to believe it has anything to do with the film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," just because the story takes place in the southwest. The silver lining here, however, is that I can definitely recommend the movie.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
I don't know how many of you recall the death of Jean Grey. Yes, you read that correctly--the death of Jean Grey. The real death of Jean Grey. The one that "took." It may not have prevented Marvel from bringing her back, but...
But--hold on, you interrupt. If Jean was brought back, she wasn't really dead, now was she.
Well, there are two schools of thought on that, and they come down to this: Jean was either "sort of" dead, or "sort of" alive again. Either way, it's hard not to feel a little taken advantage of here.
To put it all in perspective, we have to go back a bit to Jean's rebirth as Phoenix--or what we thought was Jean's rebirth. Once Phoenix met her end, due to Jean's self-sacrifice so that the universe would be safe from her deadly power, we'd later be told that Jean never became Phoenix at all--that Phoenix, instead, placed Jean into stasis and took her place as an exact duplicate of her:
Yes, what you just saw was Jean returning from the "dead." Sort of. See how that works?
And so Jean joins Scott and the original X-Men as part of X-Factor; and throughout the run of her stay there, and in future X-Men stories, Marvel continuously dangles a carrot in front of its readers and alludes repeatedly that Jean has some connection to the Phoenix force. We start to believe that Jean IS Phoenix, and is coyly avoiding the subject. It's almost like seeing Lucy hold the football for Charlie Brown, Lucy in this case being Marvel and all of us being poor Charlie Brown. We come running up to kick the football with the Phoenix crest on it, only to have Lucy snatch it away at the last moment before we can make contact with it. Back and forth we go, with no X-Men writer willing to definitively nail it down for us.
Finally we come to a story in New X-Men which sees--no snickering, now--the death of Jean. But how is she brought to death's door this time--and once and for all, is this woman Phoenix?
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
The "wrap-around" cover is probably a tricky thing to pull off. Presumably, a comic wouldn't draw attention to having a wrap-around cover unless the editor felt that it would not only generate sales, but also measure up in terms of outstanding artwork. Since the second factor would normally be dependent on the work of the regular artist on the book, there would understandably be occasions when the cover fell short of the mark--which sort of defeats the purpose of wanting to increase sales. You're not going to sell the amount of books you'd hoped for if your buyers are passing on the book at the rack.
But if it's done well, the wrap-around cover can indeed be a sales tool, particularly in those instances where the company has built anticipation toward an event culminating in the issue in question. And as this trend continued, most of these covers were not only wrap-around, but became fold-out as well, which certainly provided the issue you were about to read with a little extra bounce right up front. If I'm not mistaken, Marvel's first publication with this kind of cover was with issue #1 of the new X-Men series which launched in 1991:
And talk about going overboard--this representation, in four sections, not only made its way to four different issues (each splitting up the full artwork by Jim Lee you see above into four different covers), but a fifth issue was made available which contained all the sections in a fold-out wrap-around. We'd later see this sales tool get out of hand with "variant" covers, which would publish copies of issues with completely different cover art and thus obscure the perception the X-Men launch conveyed that Marvel was coaxing the buyer to purchase an extra copy in order to get the full artwork. A moot difference between apples and oranges, to be sure. As a cowpoke might put it, "hell, it's the same dance--just a different tune."
In a nod to Lee's depiction, have a look at its Marvel Zombies counterpart by artist Arthur Suydam:
Unlike zombies, though, who usually herald the end, we're just getting started.
Monday, March 3, 2014
On the other hand, the cure effectively removes the most compelling aspect of the Thing--the anguish of Ben Grimm, always having to be kept in check, always stewing beneath the surface of his hard, orange skin. With the Thing's power now functioning in the same way as the others, Ben is no longer the odd man out, and no longer having cause to be bitter. It opens up a whole new set of possibilities for the character, and alters the dynamic of the Fantastic Four since Ben would really have no reason to change to the Thing unless the team had to meet a threat or otherwise go into action. It's what's best for Ben, of course--but is it what's best for the book?
Writer Stan Lee never really gives either the team or even Ben a real chance to find out, since he's rigged this cure with the dreaded side-effects sub-plot. The more Ben invokes his change to the Thing and vice versa, the more the process begins to affect his mind, making him increasingly short-tempered and irrational. At first, the changes to his personality manifest as irritability and impatience, qualities which could have applied to the Thing on any given day. But, when his treatment of Alicia becomes abrasive, his behavior raises our eyebrow:
But, this being the Fantastic Four, their hectic lifestyle briefly takes our focus off of Ben and puts it back on the team, when they undertake a desperate mission to the Negative Zone in order to stop one of Reed's former colleagues from making a bid for power. Ben is more "himself," and we get a sense of how his new state might mesh with the rest of the team:
Ben's personality change abruptly accelerates, though, when Reed is trapped in the Negative Zone--and Ben, for the first time, is able to step out of his friend's shadow and take a more assertive role in the FF. Unfortunately, in his current state, Ben takes that thought to extremes, and his anger and frustration lash out in all directions at once.
Eventually, though, Ben reconsiders and decides to help with Reed's rescue. But all bets are off once that's accomplished:
In and of itself, this development of Lee's actually makes for a good story, particularly in terms of an internal matter between these four close teammates and friends. It may yank the rug out from under the Thing, as far as a new direction for Ben Grimm--but for the FF and their individual and collective characterization, it doesn't get any better. Reed and Sue are in shock (particularly Reed, for whom these radical changes in Ben's personality are probably his first real exposure to them)--Johnny wants to take Ben's head off (and the feeling's mutual)--and Alicia, blind and only really "hearing" Ben's state of mind, has little to no idea of why he's treating her in such a way. The issue ends explosively, as well it should:
As for Lee, he's really only recycling an old plot (Ben turning bad after his mind is affected by an experiment meant to cure him) while giving it a new twist. This time, Johnny takes after him solo, as the two battle in the midst of the city--a situation which is further inflamed when the Hulk appears and attacks. When everything finally plays out to Lee's satisfaction, he pulls the plug on Ben's cure, though with a curious thread left dangling:
Which is to say, Ben's "cure" is still likely in effect--but he chooses not to pursue it. The note that Lee wishes to leave this story on seems clear: Ben has finally come to terms with who and what he is, and decides to continue as both the member of the Fantastic Four that he's thrived as, and as the Thing. And as he's noted, there's also his relationship with Alicia to be considered, an uncomfortable point of concern that has never (to my knowledge) been satisfactorily confronted (though Lee once came close). We know this running theme so well by now--Ben knows that Alicia loves him, but only as the Thing. As writers, both Lee and artist/writer John Byrne benefited from the drama that's always available to be tapped from this pairing: a blind girl, in love with someone who resembles a monster. The situation being a constant source of anguish for Ben--having found such unexpected happiness with Alicia, while mulling the nagging feeling that he's wrong for her. Byrne at one time even made Alicia's feelings pivotal in a 99.9%-certain cure for Ben that nevertheless failed tragically. The situation has had a fair amount of panel space, and yet no discernible resolution.
I've lost count of how many cures Ben has either successfully or unsuccessfully gone through since this story. One or two even had him being able to change back and forth to the Thing at will, just as this first attempt made possible. For what it's worth, with this particular story taking place over forty years ago, we can at least be reasonably certain that this loose end from Reed's first real cure for Ben was probably stamped "CASE CLOSED" long ago.
Or, perhaps more accurately, "PENDING."
Sunday, March 2, 2014
I've never been sure why Marvel felt it needed to introduce another sand-based villain like Quicksand, given how the original Sandman was still on the loose. Granted that Sandman didn't have the most impressive of introductions, and it would take awhile before his abilities were given their due--but what does Quicksand bring to the table that's new?
Well, a little, but not much. First of all, unlike Sandman, whose power was initially treated more as a novelty than a villainous threat, Quicksand leaves no doubt with her first appearance that she intends to use her power ruthlessly and viciously:
Secondly, and obviously, Quicksand is a woman, and not another "Sandman"; in fact, I think her villain name is awesome, leaving no doubt as to her intentions or her threat level. I don't know anyone who ever ran into a non-deadly pile of quicksand, a threat that traps you and has only one goal where your life is concerned. The Sandman may have a tough street rep by now, but I'd certainly prefer a dynamic new villain not be associated with sleep and dreaming.
It also says something that, while Sandman didn't really get his "villain legs" until he teamed up with the Frightful Four, Quicksand starts her career by going after Marvel's biggest hitter (and confidently, at that):
Quicksand calls herself a "living elemental," a description which was probably concocted to give a little boost to the way she announces herself, as well as to further distinguish her from Sandman. It really does little else; we've certainly seen what other "elementals" are able to do, and Quicksand displays only a fraction of those abilities with her sole talent to interact with the earth. She also strangely appears to be in denial, refusing to categorize herself as a mutant despite her origin:
Which is probably just bitterness talking, since she's definitely not happy at all with being turned into this form and wants only to regain her human appearance. But in the meantime, she's willing to take out her sorry state on everyone else:
As for her match-up with Thor--well, I don't recall Thor ever slugging it out with Sandman, but hopefully it would have gone something like this:
Unfortunately, Quicksand right out of the gate has chosen to mix it up with the likes of someone like Thor, who gives her a taste of his power in his own distinct fashion:
In this first battle, Quicksand, as we've seen, wishes to take a shortcut to exacting her "revenge" by taking out a nuclear facility which has recently become the focus of protest groups. And since she used to work at such a facility, she has no trouble in rigging it to detonate, which would result in a nuclear holocaust. But Quicksand is foiled by a quick-fix tactic which, thankfully, Thor only uses on rare occasion:
Which I suppose relies on Thor having an extensive knowledge of the locations of dead worlds. Either that, or he has a handy cheat sheet tucked into his belt.
The move effectively ends Thor's battle with Quicksand, as she flees to fight another day. And that day comes when she allies herself with the Mongoose, an agent of the High Evolutionary, and again engages Thor--this time, to draw him out into the open.
Thor, as we see, is battling Quicksand while experiencing a mysterious weakness which is affecting all Asgardians. A heck of a time to be facing a villain of Quicksand's ruthlessness:
On the other hand, Quicksand doesn't win any points in the "take me seriously" category when she's (you'd better get a grip on yourself for this) firing sand shells from her sand tank:
Fortunately, we don't get to see what other absurd ideas Quicksand comes up with, because she's done her job as far as putting Thor in the sights of the Evolutionary's weapon (which fires and extracts a tissue sample from Thor, but that's another story), and she departs. Quicksand would go on to make sporadic appearances both solo and as part of villain-groups like the Femizons. For the most part, we can chalk up Quicksand as a character who featured a great name and looked promising, but who has quite a way to go before reaching even the Sandman's rap sheet.
Friday, February 28, 2014
In prior postings, we've already covered a little ground where, in the early 1980s, The Mighty Thor title was in a bit of a rut. Let me rephrase that. The title was in a sinkhole, one that seemed to be expanding every month. We saw the Thunder God fighting the likes of mathematicians, and slum lord mercenaries, and religious fanatics, and vampires, and even bullfighters. Only we completists probably stayed with the title at this point; after all, this was Thor we were talking about, one of Marvel's flagship characters. Nobody at Marvel was going to just stand around and let Thor get to the point where it had to be cancelled, or so we steadfastly thought.
The book needed a firm hand, someone who would again give it scope and vision. In late 1983, that hand would belong to writer/artist Walt Simonson, who had been aboard the book previously as artist but who would return and also take over scripting and plotting reins and pull the Thunder God out of his downward spiral. In the meantime, the wait would be excruciating in terms of some of the stories readers had to slog through. And if you think that means unscrupulous bloggers like myself would take advantage of the many, many sub-par stories which are just begging to be made into posts...
...why, I'm shocked at the implication.
I'm also shameless in confirming it.
I look at it this way:
If I and others had to suffer month after month, pulling these issues off the rack and reading each and every one, feeling like we were in some kind of Asgardian purgatory and wondering who the heck at Marvel had lost their sanity and somehow thought that this was Thor at his best--then, in the interests of fairness, you should experience the same uncomfortable winces that we did.
"WHICH ONE THIS TIME??" you gasp, quickly covering your eyes--and well you might. What mortal threat is going to require all the power of the God of Thunder to defeat? Why, no less than...
A MUTATED HORROR MOVIE ACTOR.
So you'd better hold onto your chairs and pray for Thor, because: