Thursday, May 26, 2016

Landward, Ho!

The first Sub-Mariner solo series was scripted from its beginning by writer Roy Thomas, who continued to write the character's adventures until the book's fortieth issue--opting at that point to leave the mag to focus on new projects like Conan the Barbarian and the short-lived Kull the Conqueror (among other ventures like Man-Thing and Marvel Team-Up) while still writing Incredible Hulk and The Avengers, though leaving Hulk within a few months and The Avengers in just over a year's time. Needless to say, his plate was full, and his departure from Sub-Mariner seemed well-planned, laying the groundwork to hand off Namor to a new writer with a virtually blank slate. By the time Thomas left, he'd severed Namor's ties with Atlantis as well as with his long-time love, the lady Dorma, in a penultimate issue that seemed to bring the character full-circle; and now, in that issue's follow-up, Thomas sets Namor on a course away from the sea to explore the human side of his heritage.

But from the looks of it, we now seem to have another Hulk book on our hands.

With Earth's oceans covering three-quarters of the globe, and considering Namor's feelings toward the surface world, it's an unusual move for the Sub-Mariner to choose to head for the world of land-dwellers--especially given the fact that it was on the surface where he only recently lost Dorma in a conflict with his hated enemy, Llyra. There must have been any number of locations beneath the waves where he could find solace while deciding what to do with the rest of his life after abdicating the throne of Atlantis; yet perhaps Thomas felt that Namor plunging deeper into the ocean wouldn't sufficiently engage readers of Sub-Mariner to the degree where sales of the book would benefit. I suppose it would depend on how the next writer would have explored those ocean depths with the character, and what worlds could be created there for Namor to become involved in. On the surface, Namor would seem to be (you'll excuse the expression) a fish out of water.

The other unusual element in this story is that Namor would make so public a spectacle of his arrival, mired in grief as he still must be. There are easier channels for him to expatriate himself to the surface world, which at the very least would allow him to clear his head and consider exactly what he wishes to do in an existence among surface men. What draws him to the world of land dwellers--and why? We'll discover what form the answer will eventually take--but for now, Namor's decision is difficult to come to terms with.

Yet first, there's the need to face the aftermath of the encounter which took everything from Namor--the Florida oceanarium where Dorma died, and where her murderer barely escaped from. It's a powerful scene of rage, from one accustomed to making his foes pay for their transgressions--a scene that doesn't bode well for the evil Llyra and the day of reckoning she may one day face at Namor's hand.

From there, we arrive at this story's dramatic splash page, which appropriately returns Namor to a historic city he's well familiar with from decades past--a place where he decides to make his presence and new status known at dawn's light.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

To Charge Again!

When we think of iconic comics covers, one that instantly comes to mind for me is the 1964 Avengers #4, which reintroduced Captain America to comic book readers after an absence of twenty years and all but formally made clear that the character would become the team's standard-bearer and come to embody its fighting spirit. Artist Jack Kirby's basic layout of the Avengers charging into the fray both serves to rechristen the team following the Hulk's departure as well as to reinvigorate the mag with a character whose abilities are not based on strength and whose reputation precedes him. Page One of the story spills the beans by making it clear that Cap is the newest Avenger--but Kirby leaves little room for doubt about that with the overall tone of his well-remembered cover.

Just as we've profiled other covers here at the PPOC that have been paid tribute to by other artists, it probably comes as no surprise that Avengers #4 would also have its share of artists who would use Kirby's design as a template and pay homage to his cover with their own version of this historic lineup. Following are a few such recreations (with Kirby's original pictured first), followed by a brief index of the contributing artists. Kudos to all of the talent featured here!

From left to right, top to bottom:

Jack Kirby and George Roussos
John Buscema and Frank Giacoia
Daniel Mead (featuring the Avengers "Wedgies")
Chris Giarrusso (colors by Gerry Turnbull)
Alex Ross
Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod
Ron Wilson and Danny Bulanadi (both unverified)
Arthur Suydam
Eric Powell (unverified)
John Cassaday
Scioli Xca

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Curious Catering to a Demographic

Thanks to a couple of clever people somewhere in the vastness of the Internet, who have the gift of presenting their observations in the form of graphics, we now have a good idea of just where the Spider-Man franchise is headed as far as the age of its principal characters is concerned.

Seriously, I'm drawing the line at toddlers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Confound It--The Attack Of The Demi-Gods!

As hard an act to follow as the epic Kree-Skrull War admittedly was in The Avengers, there was still the book's 100th issue waiting in the wings, which perhaps felt like an anti-climax to what had come before. A three-part "mini-epic" that brought the assemblers into conflict with Ares, the Grecian god of war, in a scheme to invade Asgard, the story is likely better known for eventually gathering together the entire roster of the Avengers (including the Hulk)--something that hadn't been attempted to any degree since the 1967 Avengers Annual.

As to what else this story offers overall--well, you have to do some digging, as well as overlook a few things that writer Roy Thomas includes in order to have the story progress from Point A to Point B to Point C, some of which were covered in the PPOC review of the aforementioned issue #100. The penultimate issue, which we take a look at today, will serve to bring us up to speed on the events of the story's beginning, as well as set the stage for the Avengers' invasion of Olympus which follows--and we pick things up after the Avengers have recovered one of their own, and turn their attention to the mysterious arrival of another team member, who recites a prophecy of doom that pronounces not only the fall of Asgard, but Earth, as well.

Friday, May 20, 2016

From Your Comic To Scott Derrickson's Ear

There wasn't a great deal of subtlety in the 1964 match-up between Dr. Strange and the Asgardian god of mischief, Loki. On the other hand, maybe you don't need to bother with subtlety, when you've got fanfare like this working for you:

There's a certain lopsided aspect to this face-off--Strange, an adept in the mystic arts but nevertheless a mortal, vs. an Asgardian god whose power is off the scale and knows mysticism on many levels. Writer Stan Lee doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the fact, yet still creates a solid story; and it's to artist Steve Ditko's credit that it comes off as visually captivating as it does. In later years, a writer like Steve Englehart or Chris Claremont might have given this kind of struggle room to breathe and explored its impact on Strange, as was the case when the character faced Dracula; but with only one issue at their disposal, and only eleven pages of it at that, Lee and Ditko still leave us with a tale which covers most of the bases we would want it to.

As with most stories involving Loki seeking to strike out at Thor (never mind the fact that in terms of success, Loki "strikes out" almost every time), Lee sticks to a typical formula of Loki attempting to locate a gullible super-being to manipulate into doing his bidding. For what he has planned, in this case he only needs a certain skill set, which Strange has to offer.

(It's odd how often Loki has plotted to steal the hammer of Thor, expecting to wield it once it's in his possession. Exactly how he plans to use it as a weapon remains unclear, given that "worthy" isn't one of the words we'd normally associate with Loki.)

With the deed done, Strange soon realizes that the evil he sensed is due to Loki himself, and he wastes no time in moving against him--to the utter astonishment of Loki, who's probably more amazed by Strange's presumption than by any power he brings to bear. Nevertheless, what Strange lacks in power, he makes up for in tactics, and he uses what power he has wisely and well. And in a crucial moment, he's able to defeat Loki's plan, if not Loki himself.

(We'll have to assume that Thor was flying at cloud-level if he was still in mid-fall by the time his hammer returned to him. Combined with the tweak in Strange's incantation, that's not such an unreasonable leap to ask the reader to make.)

With Loki now realizing he's on borrowed time, he begins to go all-out in his battle against Strange--and though Strange is resourceful, he realizes the capabilities and power of his foe all too clearly. It also has to be disheartening when Loki makes it clear that, under the circumstances, he's only facing Strange with a fraction of his might. (Strange might have sought a psychological edge, and responded with "Fool! Do you think I would waste my full might on a trickster like you? I could end this battle in a heartbeat, if I wished! You but amuse me, nothing more!" If nothing else, the look on Loki's face would be priceless--the split-second before he reduced Strange to a blot on the carpet, that is.

Regardless, Strange battles on--until unexpected help arrives.

In spite of his parting vow, whatever vendetta he held against Strange appears to indeed have been forgotten by Loki, at least to my knowledge. But if actor Tom Hiddleston has his way, we just might get a spectacular rematch on the big screen someday.

Strange Tales #123

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Steve Ditko
Inks: George Bell
Letterer: Art Simek

Thursday, May 19, 2016

With Friends Like These...!

When you think of "comic relief" in a comic book, two characters who might come to mind are the famous pair who became steadfast friends and supporters of Tony Stark throughout the evolution of Iron Man, ever since their debut in late 1963--Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, Stark's gal Friday and right-hand man, respectively. Created when alliteration was often resorted to in naming characters who were meant to become memorable, Happy and Pepper were added as supporting cast members in Iron Man's early days from Tales Of Suspense--both getting their start in the comic together, and receiving generous billing on their issue's cover, at that.

Often the foil for each other (though Happy more so than Pepper), the characters provided a more humanizing emphasis on Stark, who would of course be spending most of the issue's time in his identity-concealing armor-- giving us an excuse to peek behind the doors of Stark's office environment, and eventually becoming his trusted aides. Most of their scenes had them playing off one another, while Stark observed and often chuckled at the acerbic nature of their interplay--and for awhile, that back-and-forth between them defined their characters, as well as their relationship with each other.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Pain, And The Power!

An origin/retrospect story like Amazing Spider-Man #181 came at a peculiar time in the book's run, given that there seemed to be no major need for such a story other than the fact that ASM "switched gears" a bit around this time. Writer Len Wein had departed the book with its previous issue; long-time artist Ross Andru would be doing likewise four issues later, when Peter Parker graduated college (sort of); Marv Wolfman would replace Wein as writer, while Keith Pollard became the new artist (albeit temporarily for both); and the milestone of the book's 200th issue was just around the corner. From that point, ASM would resemble something of a "try-out" book, with a number of writers, pencillers and inkers pitching in (some more frequently than others)--and when the dust finally settled, Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. would take up residence for a two-year run.

So a recap of Spider-Man's life to date, while folding in another take of his origin story, closed out Wein's tenure by "taking a breath" after 180 issues before moving on. For anyone already familiar with the history of the mag or simply with Spidey's origin--or with both--the issue does little else, other than provide a visually interesting interlude, thanks to artist Sal Buscema who compiles the life of the wall-crawler nicely and hits the noteworthy points. That said, parts of this issue will feel like padding in that respect by both Buscema and writer Bill Mantlo, often grouping together characters in a panel and groping for descriptive text that fits the scene. Mantlo's narrative at times is uncomfortably almost patronizing, and prods the reader into feeling that the narrative is channeling their own feelings and thoughts on the scenes being presented. In the framing sequences, where Spider-Man reflects at the site of his uncle's grave, Mantlo shifts back to write some touching dialog--and you can only wonder how this book would read if it were Spider-Man who dictated the scenes, rather than Mantlo.

One example among many might be a scene which features Gwen Stacy, indicating an upturn in the life of Peter Parker--a scene which almost coaxes the reader to nod in agreement at the assertions made.

It's unclear how Joe Robertson connects to this scene, other than a shared association with the Daily Bugle. What does his desire to see people happy have to do with anything? (Is it some loose reference to handing Peter plum photo assignments?) Ditto for Capt. Stacy's approval of the relationship between Peter and Gwen--how is that important here, other than as reinforcement that isn't needed? Stacy's presence only sets up the following scene which shows his death during Spidey's battle with Dr. Octopus.

Buscema, of course, does his usual excellent job at presentation. While there are certain stock shots that Buscema has in his repertoire, with many of them trotted out here, he can also be very creative when tackling an assignment that leaves room for his imagination. Early in the story, of course, we get a run-down of Spider-Man's origin, which can be condensed fairly briefly; but have a look at how those familiar scenes become part of the clever format that introduces the character to the world.

From there, we have another impressive glimpse into Spider-Man's early history, while giving a more than generous amount of exposure to Spidey's civilian nemesis, J. Jonah Jameson--perhaps too generous, considering that there's more than enough ground in Spider-Man's life to cover without taking time to supply a virtual dossier of the publisher of the Daily Bugle.

On the other side of the coin, Buscema provides a decent sampling of the villains who have made appearances in the mag, a well-rounded assemblage that could easily have become too bloated.

(Mirage? Stegron? Really? No one else who could more memorably fill those slots?)

Then there's the nice framing story that gives some measure of worth to all of the history (as well as the superfluous eye candy) that comprises the issue, set off with a dramatically appropriate cover by Gil Kane that probably does the most to sell this issue. Remembering his Uncle Ben fondly and missing his presence has never been difficult for Peter--partly due to the example his uncle set for him, and partly because of the responsibility that Peter feels for his untimely death.

Peter's Aunt May has also paid a visit to the gravesite, which Spider-Man observes out of sight; but when his aunt departs, we see the symmetry that Mantlo brings to the scene, though we don't fully realize it until another person arrives at the site. Give Mantlo credit for pulling the unexpected in the way this scene plays out--but it appears to sap this story's ending of its effect on both Peter as well as the reader.

It's difficult to put into words how we feel about this man, isn't it. There's no mistaking the parallel between his son, Tommy, and a young Peter Parker, while the father shows a genuine concern for Tommy's situation and his future; but on the other hand, he feels no guilt whatsoever at pilfering someone's sentimental gesture toward a loved one who's passed away. Nor does Mantlo help matters much, with an "oh, well" final comment that effectively erases whatever feelings these scenes brought to the story.

. . .

However you ended up feeling at the end of "Flashback!" (the title of this tale), you could still find yourself quite touched by flipping the pages to the Bullpen Bulletins section, where a sad note announced the passing of a true giant (both literal and figurative) in the comics field--inker and Production Manager John Verpoorten, who died at just 37 years young. What a pleasure he must have been to work with, and to know.

Amazing Spider-Man #181

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Mike Esposito
Letterer: Annette Kawecki

Monday, May 16, 2016

None Are So Blind...!

As a companion story to "The Circus of Lost Souls!", where writer Len Wein shows a more gentle side to the incredible Hulk by having him interact with a young girl who sees and accepts him in a different light than how others do (just as Roy Thomas did in a story involving a hallucination), "None Are So Blind...!" strikes a similar note, with a connection just as moving and an ending just as poignant. It's a reliable plot device that goes back to the 1931 classic film, Frankenstein (well, with the exception of how that particular scene ends). Here, of course, the Hulk knows enough not to endanger the one who means him no harm--and if we're to believe the issue's cover, heaven help those who do.

Wein handles these "meet and greet" scenes between the Hulk and a trusting innocent quite well, with each situation pleasantly unique (e.g., "Crackajack" Jackson). In this case, the Hulk has escaped the fortress of the Gremlin in Siberia, and slowly makes his way to a clearing near a small Russian village where he comes across Katrina, drawn to her by her gentle singing. Introductions are made, and the two become at ease with one another fairly quickly. Yet the Hulk is saddened to discover that Katrina has an affliction he's at a loss to help her with.

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