Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flight of Fear!

An indeterminate amount of time has passed since Dracula, Lord of the Undead, discovered that his deadly, disembodied enemy, Doctor Sun, is striking at him from within the United States--Boston, to be exact, a distance of over 3,200 miles from Dracula's current location in London. In a prior story, we saw Dracula fly in his bat form over 500 miles to Scotland to commit a murder in fulfillment of an agreement he made with a vengeful businesswoman; but now the distance he faces is too great, and he must secure conventional means of travel overseas. And he has little time to do so--the procedure that Sun performed while Dracula was his captive has made it possible for Sun to steadily drain his enemy's vampiric powers, and Dracula now has barely two weeks before he faces what could be his final death at last.

On Dracula's trail is a group of professionals who have gathered to track his movements and assess his state of vulnerability: Inspector Chelm of Scotland Yard; psychologist Dr. Scott, who's been brought in by Chelm; and Rachel Van Helsing and Quincy Harker, professed vampire hunters who have a long history with Dracula dating back to their respective ancestors. Through them, we'll follow the trail of blood and death that Dracula has left in his efforts to reach Boston--and as this story looks backward at those events, we're given a different kind of thriller than the prior tale, where those who have crossed Dracula's path give their eyewitness accounts of the horror that seeks to make its way to America.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Hell Hath No Fury...

Nothing starts off the mirthful and joyous Christmas season like a couple of back-to-back thrillers featuring the Lord of Vampires quenching his deadly thirst on hapless victims, I always say. And for those of us in the States, the timing couldn't be better, since Dracula is soon to be forced to travel to America in order to put a halt to the plan of the twisted Doctor Sun. It's only recently, in a near-fatal confrontation with his old enemy, Quincy Harker, that Dracula has received information that an as-yet unnamed foe has been draining him of his powers, and that he has just two weeks before he dies a final death; and thanks to an enthralled member of Parliament, Dracula receives papers detailing a Scotland Yard investigation that confirms his suspicions that it's Sun who is responsible.

And now, Dracula must race against time to find the current location of Sun, so that he may stop the process and carry out his vengeance on the floating brain. Which brings us to Daphne von Wilkinson, a fashion industry cutthroat who makes Miranda Priestly look tame by comparison.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The (Truly) Terrible Traps of Egghead!

In his debut story, the criminal mastermind known as Egghead struck out in his attempt to fulfill a lucrative underworld contract to remove Ant-Man as a threat. Egghead escaped in the end, and fled to Manhattan's Bowery district to hide out (from both Ant-Man and the mob), where he seemed a broken man. But apparently a flophouse has amazing recuperative properties, because it wasn't long before Egghead was ready for Round Two with his ant-sized foe.

Both the issue's cover and its splash page might have you thinking that Egghead has had a bit of a makeover since we last saw him--"less bookworm, more diabolical!" you can almost hear plotter Stan Lee relay to his artists (Jack Kirby and Don Heck, respectively). But such is not the case--Egghead's cosmetic alterations are integral to this story's plot, and nothing more.

Also important to the plot is the Wasp, who has only just joined Ant-Man as his partner and almost immediately finds herself being used as a hostage. You'll definitely rate a place in Comics Heroines of the 1960s - Stan Lee edition, Jan.  Instead of rope and a gag, you'll likely be seeing corked jars.

As for Egghead, he seems to be in the process of being groomed for greater things. Egghead didn't exactly make a memorable impression in his premiere appearance--but just look at the narrative fanfare he receives at the opening of this story:

Good heavens, is this Egghead we're talking about, or Lex Luthor? He's not doing badly for only his second time out of the gate, is he? Though while we're on the subject, just a slight clarification seems to be in order: "No living man had ever defeated the sinister scientist before, except for the Ant-Man"--probably because, as far as we know, the Ant-Man is the first man (living or otherwise) that Egghead has ever come up against. Nor was it a good sign that the man's first defeat snapped him like a pencil.

But Egghead's luck changes when two thugs left over from a failed criminal venture duck into the same flophouse where he's staying, and one name comes up that rouses Egghead from his doldrums.

The impromptu meeting establishes a pattern of Egghead aligning himself with elements of the criminal underworld (that is, criminals who weren't foreign agents), the type of alliance of necessity that Egghead would make into a regular practice with such men in the years to come.

This time, Egghead's plan would be far more intricate and carefully considered, since neither Egghead nor his mob buddies want to have Ant-Man hand them their heads again. It breaks down like this:

  • Egghead sets up equipment to intercept and scramble any messages the ants send to Ant-Man; he then...
  • Creates a disguise for himself as a zoologist and begins giving lectures on insects that are sure to (and do) attract the attention of Ant-Man and the Wasp; in addition, he...
  • Prepares and publicizes an exhibit on wasps at the city zoo, designed to draw the attention of and eventually capture the Wasp to use as bait--but, curiously, chooses the reptile house for his exhibit and lecture;
  • At that point, Egghead and his two, er, associates, Twister and Ape, proceed to steal a priceless diamond--partly to placate the two gunmen, but also to further Egghead's plan to trap the Wasp; and to make sure the heist is successful, he...
  • Uses his scrambling equipment to prevent Ant-Man's ants from alerting the hero to the theft until it's too late to prevent it and the men make a clean getaway; which unfortunately leads to...
  • A mini-rebellion being quashed by Egghead, due to his men wanting to fence the diamond, take the profits, and forget about Ant-Man;
  • The men then string electrical wiring through every crack and crevice of the exhibit; and finally...
  • Egghead prepares a special "wasp's nest" that's rigged to capture both Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Jeez. At this point I can't blame Ape and Twister for wanting to take the money and run.  As it is, they've probably nodded off.

As the final touches are being put on this elaborate trap, Ape asks the question that's probably on all our minds: "This is a waste of time! Why don'tcha just step on him when he shows up?" Bravo, Ape! But you have to expect that a man known as Egghead would have an answer for everything: "He's not that easy to step on, my friend!" I'm frankly astonished that even Ape would settle for such an indistinct answer--but, then again, haven't we all.

Finally, it's time to spring the trap to capture the Wasp, and the bait happens to be the diamond from the heist which Ant-Man and the Wasp are still on the lookout for. Its location? Inside the rigged wasp's nest at the exhibit which Jan attends by herself, and who appears to be the only person in the crowd to notice a priceless diamond sparkling inside of it.

"Should I notify the police? No!" That's a future Avenger with NSC clearance talking, folks.

Under cover of darkness, the Wasp returns to the exhibit and enters the nest, only to find that she's entered a man-made trap, instead. It seems that Egghead has thought of everything so far; and when Ant-Man arrives to investigate, he literally falls into a trap of his own, and we see just why Egghead established his exhibit in the reptile wing of the zoo.

It's likely the first time any of us has seen an ant gallop, but Egghead is probably a lot more surprised than we are--especially considering what happens next, and how the tables begin to turn against him despite his careful, leave-nothing-to-chance planning.

As we can see, Egghead is building quite a grudge against Ant-Man, and would eventually carry that grudge to the Avengers title as well as others. The circle closes when he finally meets his death while battling his old enemy--sneering to the end.

Tales To Astonish #45

Script: Ernie Hart (as H.E. Huntley)
Pencils and Inks: Don Heck
Letterer: Art Simek

Thursday, December 1, 2016

You Don't Look So Tough To Me

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best."
   -- Edward G. Robinson (as Lancey "The Man" Howard), The Cincinnati Kid

It turns out that the classic actor from Hollywood's Golden Age, Edward G. Robinson, had a few fans in the Marvel Bullpen, given the cameo appearances he's made in stories over the decades--some of them caricatures, others depicting the man himself. As we'll see, all of them represent his role as a gangster, a part he played frequently and certainly one which he excelled at. And if you're wondering what circumstances could possibly result in Mr. Robinson showing up in a comic book story--well, comic books are a fantasy/entertainment medium, after all. Suffice to say that, when Edward G. Robinson wants to make an entrance, all of the other characters had best make way for him.

From Iron Man #40, 1998 (along with several of his peers):
(pencils by John Romita Sr.)

From The Avengers #s 137-138:
(pencils by George Tuska)

From Tales To Astonish #38 (though not by name):
(pencils by Jack Kirby)

From Fantastic Four #s 91-92 (as Napoleon G. Robberson):
(pencils by Jack Kirby)

The examples above may or may not be a comprehensive collection of his Marvel appearances--but if you recall an appearance that wasn't among these others, do chime in with details! See?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

When Sneers Egghead!

Since we've spent a fair amount of time on Henry Pym lately, we should give due attention to the man who would become one of his most dogged foes--the man known as Egghead, who's introduced in December of 1962 just a few issues into Ant-Man's run in Tales To Astonish. Granted, Ant-Man's foes in that title were generally nothing to write home about; but when your archenemy turns out to be a man who takes pride in the name "Egghead," it's fair to say you're at the bottom rung of the hero ladder.

As far as super-villains go, we'd probably have to award the label of archenemy to the Human Top, Pym's most deadly foe in his early days, with Ultron of course rising later to menace not only Pym but all of the Avengers. Yet waiting in the wings was always Egghead, a normal human whose resourcefulness and ruthlessness, combined with his brilliance, made him a perpetual threat to Pym. (And he would have been a natural as one of the Headmen.) We've come to realize over time that Egghead is the type to hold a grudge, to be sure--but how did his anger and resentment toward Pym take root?

Like many villains, Egghead began his life of crime because of his desire for and need of money--and he didn't appear to have any scruples whatsoever as to how to go about obtaining it. In fact, when we first encounter him, he's already in hot water--a scientist working for the government, who had decided that there aren't nearly enough zeros in his paycheck and concludes that slipping government secrets to foreign powers will put him on Easy Street.

"To a genius like me your insipid patriotic ramblings are laughable! I sneer at you all!" Scripter Larry Lieber may have been an unsung talent at Marvel, but he had his moments.  It seems evident that Egghead already has his own thoughts on what status he feels he's due. It's also interesting to note a total lack of remorse in his character, a character trait we've already seen he would come to use as a ploy when necessary.

In a way, it's actually Ant-Man's effectiveness as a crime-fighter (as odd as that comes out sounding) that we have to thank for opening the door for Egghead with the criminal underworld that he would often seek out to help him further his plans. The news of Egghead being drummed out of his position with the government eventually reaches a few notables of that underworld, who have been driven underground by Ant-Man and who are desperately looking for someone to deal with a threat no larger than a thumbnail. And for Egghead, these men already have gotten wind that the best way to gain his cooperation is to flash a wad of green bills in front of him.

"Brute force ain't the answer!" Well, we're pretty sure that it is, since Ant-Man mostly chooses to remain at ant size during his early exploits and relies on his ants as back-up, limited to the more slow-acting growth abilities that his gas-based power affords him and not yet able to more extensively take advantage of his size-changing advantage. Ant-Man may have the strength of a full-grown man at ant size, but it's a fair bet he'll still go *SPLAT* when Lefty or Edward G. Robinson here brings their foot down on him. And speaking of the actor from Hollywood's Golden Age, Egghead's debut is one of several rare instances where the actor's likeness makes a delightful surprise appearance in a Marvel story.

As for Egghead, the mob's dough is money well spent, since he almost immediately produces results by deducing and duplicating one of Pym's earliest discoveries: how to communicate with the insect world. From there, it's a simple matter for him to lay a trap for his foe.

Egghead might have been better served by using his technology to direct the ants, rather than offering them a choice between himself and Pym, but we'll get to that in a moment.

When the time comes for Egghead to spring his trap, it looks like the ants are on board, with Pym walking right into it. (Or in this case, being bellowed into it.)

With Ant-Man free, it isn't long before Egghead is forced to flee and the gunmen are routed--including our poor Mr. Robinson stand-in, "see"?

Pym is being a little misleading as to the psychology of his little "friends," since they're only his willing allies as long as he wears his cybernetic helmet that allows him a measure of control over them. Egghead was on the right track when he offered to "free [the ants] from the Ant-Man's rule," since that's precisely what Ant-Man's power over them involves. Take, for instance, the incident where Whirlwind (our former Human Top) drops both Pym and the Wasp into an ant colony without the benefit of their cybernetic control technology. Fortunately, there was a stash of circuitry within the tank that Pym was able to salvage into a makeshift device, just in time to save their lives.

Had Egghead devised technology that could make the ants follow his own directives, this story might have turned out differently for him. Instead, he heads to a refuge he would come to know well in the years ahead--the Bowery in Manhattan's lower east side (also known at the time as "Skid Row"), where he would simmer and make future plans to gain his revenge on Henry Pym.

Egghead bounces back! (He didn't stay holed up for long, did he?)

Just how often did Mr. Robinson moonlight in Marvel Comics?

Tales To Astonish #38

Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Jon D'Agostino (as Johnny Dee)

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Brawn Of The Brain!

It probably comes as no surprise that the incredible Hulk has had his share of gargantuan foes who have wanted to stomp him flat as a pancake--nor is it exactly surprising that those attempts have met with failure, if not the total destruction of his attacker.

But, M.O.D.O.K. doing the stomping? With those spindly little legs of his?

Let's just say that he's worked around that hindrance.

Yikes!  Isn't MODOK supposed to be all brains and no brawn?

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Guilt Of The Innocent

We're wrapping up what's turned into "Pile Onto Pym" Week here at the PPoC, as we continue our look at Henry Pym's downward spiral following his expulsion from the Avengers. Things are hardly looking up for Pym since that disgrace; destitute, he returned to his wife to ask for her forgiveness, only to find that she'd kicked him out and was pursuing divorce proceedings.

Since then, the Avengers have put themselves in order and moved on, with Pym's estranged wife, Jan, having expedited her divorce in the Dominican Republic and then returning to nominate herself for and be accepted as the new Avengers chairwoman--while Tigra, following the team's conflict with the Molecule Man, has decided that she's not yet cut out to be an Avenger and has resigned. But from the looks of this issue's cover, the first order of business for the refurbished Avengers appears to be to add to the woes of their former comrade, Henry Pym.

Either Yellowjacket is gunning for the Avengers, or the other way around--
but which one is it?

Believe it or not, it's going to turn out to be a little of both!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

This Hero No More!

Following Henry Pym's court-martial and subsequent expulsion from the Avengers, the disgraced and humiliated former hero left the premises almost immediately without waiting for the formal and inevitable vote that effectively ended his Avengers career; but the aftershocks of his disrepute continue to ripple through Avengers Mansion and beyond, as each of the Avengers comes to terms with the loss and the breakdown of a man who goes back to the beginning, one of the team's founding members.

As part-epilogue to that story, writer Jim Shooter once more takes a look at the Avengers one by one--and there is also the fate of Pym to consider, now directionless and likely having lost his wife and his home, as well. Most of the Avengers would tackle a new threat in the issue's main plot--but it's clear that the situation with their former teammate still haunts them, which certainly holds true for the man himself.

First, we look in on two of Pym's... erstwhile comrades, Iron Man and Thor, as they meet in their respective civilian identities as Tony Stark and Donald Blake to discuss how to help Pym hopefully get back on his feet as well as, it goes without saying, getting him the necessary medical therapy to deal with his issues. It was almost tempting to use the word "friends" for a moment there--but were they ever that to Pym, really? It might be much easier to say that of Steve Rogers--but it's high time for these two people, who operate in their own separate circles, to admit that they never knew Pym on that level. That said, Pym's contribution and dedication to the Avengers has been unequivocal, and it's gratifying to see that these two men want to reach out to him, rather than just going about their business after having taken him off the Avengers roster (if reluctantly).

Strange--I would have at least thought that the first reflex of either of these men would be to call Pym by his real name rather than that of his costumed identity--yet Stark correcting himself perhaps underscores the distant relationship they've had with him over the years. We forget sometimes how private all of the original Avengers were with each other when they first worked together (even making a point to put that condition in writing in their charter). Pym and the Wasp, in particular, didn't reveal their identities until they returned to the group when Cap was leading the team, while Stark and Thor shared their identities only with each other at a later point. Add to that the fact that Avengers Mansion was mainly a meeting site, with Iron Man, Thor, and the Pyms never in residence, and it's easy to understand why this sort of conversation between Stark and Blake regarding Pym was bound to be awkward.

One Avenger who is currently in residence--Tigra--also has an opinion on the situation, especially after seeing Captain America take out his frustration in the gym. As we saw prior to the court-martial, Tigra's opinion of Pym wasn't favorable, and Pym's transparent ruse to absolve himself only sent it plummeting further. Yet Jarvis, the mansion's butler, has a wealth of perspective on the Avengers gained during his long tenure with them, and he's present to offer Tigra a different opinion on her harsh assessment of Pym--tactfully, of course.

One wonders if Jarvis would speak the same glowing words of Pym to the Wasp, if it were she he was speaking to instead of Tigra, eh?

And speaking of Jan, she is no doubt an important stop for Shooter to make as he continues to take the temperature of the Avengers after Pym's expulsion. As we can see, Jan's is decidedly... chilly.

With artist Bob Hall's rendering of Pym's assault on Jan now canon, Shooter appears willing to advance this story as if Pym struck Jan intentionally, rather than the way he had originally wanted the scene to come across; otherwise, divorce would seem an extreme step to take for being unintentionally knocked to the ground out of a mixture of anger and frustration. But now that Jan has faced facts and asserted herself, it would seem the only step left for her to take--and Shooter now has a much stronger scene to script, featuring a woman who has finally stepped out from behind her own shadow.

Which naturally brings us to Pym, and his feelings. So much has already been said by and about him on this subject; yet now that he's cleared his head to a degree and things have calmed down, what are his thoughts on how he's conducted himself? How things have turned out? In response we're only given narrative that amounts to "to be continued"; for now, we can only assume that what he feels is mostly regret. There was a time when Pym mostly called the shots for the Avengers--and as he sits in solitude, he paints a sobering picture of how much his prospects have changed.

Finally, there's Captain America, who had the unpleasant duty of bringing the charges against Pym and prosecuting him during the court-martial. Since Pym's expulsion, he's also insisted on taking the lion's share of responsibility for the pressure that Pym was under, perhaps out of guilt for an Avenger on his watch washing out--and someone of Pym's reputation and dedication, at that. The gym equipment he's faced today, as a result, hasn't stood a chance against his bottled rage--but Jarvis, again, has an opinion to offer that will hopefully save at least the pommel horse from the scrap heap.

In both instances, Jarvis's words boil down to giving Henry Pym every chance to pull himself out of his nosedive and redeem himself--knowing that journey will need to start with Pym himself. The question is:  Is Pym ready to do so?

Things go from bad to worse, as Yellowjacket is accused of a federal crime!
PLUS: The return of Egghead!

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