Friday, September 21, 2018

Father Be Damned--The Vengeance Of Dracula's Daughter!

To say that the relationship between Dracula, Lord of the Undead, and his equally undead daughter, Lilith, is a contentious one may be a (heh) grave understatement. "Contentious" describes the behavior of individuals you'd find squaring off at protests (or at practically any Thanksgiving table). What these two share is more along the lines of a blood feud, going back five generations to virtually the moment of Lilith's birth--which makes it fair to say that Dracula himself instigated their mutual enmity, through no fault of Lilith's. Dracula, however, has a different persepective on the circumstances of their relationship, which he doesn't hesitate to recount to her during one of their rare meetings, taking place this time at a sports arena in London.

In essence, Dracula's intention at the time was to wash his hands of both wife and daughter, the latter entirely due to the fact that Lilith served to be a perpetual reminder of the woman he so hated.

But at this meeting where Lilith seeks to re-establish ties, she appears to be seeking not to bury the hatchet but to set it aside. Yet while the history between herself and her father has been sparse, it's never been even close to amiable, or even cooperative--nor is there any possibility that it ever will be. And of the two of them, only Dracula is prepared to bluntly admit it.

Consequently, there's been little to no contact to speak of between the pair in the Tomb Of Dracula title--which is probably just as well, since Dracula's brief reminiscences of Lilith are reflective of an unchanging status quo between them that Dracula has never demonstrated any signs of wishing to alter. And frankly, given Lilith's bitterness toward her father, it's clear why Dracula doesn't even entertain any thoughts of meeting her halfway.

But in late 1978, with the TOD title counting down to its final issues, writer Marv Wolfman gives Lilith her final shot at satisfying her hatred toward her father when, in a twist to their respective positions toward each other, Dracula finds himself in need of Lilith's help. The question is: Will she give it?

At first glance, it doesn't look like it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Rise Of The Dark Phoenix!

In mid-1980, the already-successful Uncanny X-Men title reached what was arguably the pinnacle of its popularity when its co-plotters, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, introduced the character of Dark Phoenix--capping the already well-received makeover of Jean Grey, one of the original members of the X-Men, whose identity as the telekinetic/telepath Marvel Girl had literally been given new life as "Phoenix," the ultimate expression of her potential as a psi.

It's not unusual these days to encounter an eye-roll or two when raising the subject of Phoenix, with Marvel having taken that "life incarnate" part a bit too far and recycling/remarketing the character and concept ad nauseam in the nearly forty years since her inception.  Yet in the beginning, when Phoenix was still being presented as tied to Jean Grey, her steady evolution to something beyond her control was riveting, providing a different take on a classic character who up until that point had been eclipsed by even the Wasp.

As for her transformation to "Dark" Phoenix, it seemed to be well-timed to the fact that her friends and teammates had grown worried about her ability to contain her vastly increased power; while an additional factor complicated the situation when an old enemy of the X-Men, Mastermind, began to seduce and corrupt her thoughts, until she became susceptible to casting aside her self-restraint and letting slip away her morals and conscience, a steady shift in behavior that Mastermind encouraged in her.

The result: a twisted version of her former self, wielding limitless power and abandoning her moral compass as easily as you or I might discard a piece of lint. And now, as an entity intent on embracing and following a darker path to the stars, Phoenix severs ties to those who she once considered friends--and viciously, at that.

We would later learn the behind-the-scenes story of Phoenix, detailing Claremont and Byrne's original plans for Jean and why they shifted course at the eleventh hour--and we'd also witness Jean's contrived return and the status quo restored. But in this early tale which begins to explore the dark turn of the character, we're all still under the impression that these shocking developments are the natural progression of Jean's evolution as plotted by Claremont and Byrne--taking her in a direction that raises her profile considerably, at least for as long as the ride lasts.

We'll have to trust Cyclops' later assertion that Jean has made an effort here, conscious or otherwise, to avoid slaying the X-Men outright; otherwise, even though the jury would be out on Wolverine, Colossus would now be dead after a multi-ton solid gold tree was toppled onto him while he was in human form--a death which would have occurred if only a single ton of weight had fallen on him, even if it turned out he was only pinned. Whatever Jean's intentions, come on--Peter is pulp, like any of us would be in his place. When is the funeral?

From here, the story takes a fascinating turn, with Jean--or, rather, the malefic entity she's become--departing Earth forever with no reservations, while other characters react to the emergence of Dark Phoenix in various ways, depending on the circumstances. As for the X-Men at the scene, they're deprived of hearing Jean's "goodbye" sentiments, such as they are.

For those left in Jean's wake, they can only speculate as to what's happening (though the Silver Surfer comes close):

While those in her path are unfortunately reduced to a state of dread that would precede their deaths--a sudden, incredible turn of events that in an instant makes Jean Grey a mass murderer, on a horrifying scale.

It's a sobering scene that carries a wealth of complications for the character, and for the X-Men--though the reader is perhaps wondering for the first time if Jean has reached the point of no return here... if there is any coming back from this. Later, we'd see that Wolverine is convinced that Jean and Phoenix are two separate entities, ergo, Jean can't be held responsible for the actions of Phoenix. Nightcrawler wonders if he can forgive Jean for what he views as an atrocity many levels above those of the Holocaust. And Jean herself all but admits that her feelings and those of Phoenix may likely be one and the same. You can't help but wonder how Claremont will sweep it all under the rug, as he must if Jean Grey survives the repercussions of her actions.

I remember at the time being so impressed with the amount of material Claremont and Byrne were able to pack into this story's 17 (!) pages.  The battle with the X-Men... the aftermath of the team's dealings with the Hellfire Club... the scenes with Xavier and Moira MacTaggert, conferring about Jean's fate... and then, an amazing panorama of scenes by Byrne and inker Terry Austin (the latter departing Marvel for DC following his X-Men and Dr. Strange work--Marvel's loss, to be sure) of Dark Phoenix, a thoroughly corrupted young woman who has already begun effecting massive change and turmoil in another galaxy. When this saga concluded, it would mark a turning point for the X-Men, for Cyclops in particular, and for the book itself as the team dynamic shifted; but this issue was such a page-turner that it was all a reader could do to keep up with the events unfolding here in front of their eyes without even thinking of looking down the road that far.

Since we know in hindsight the Shi'ar would step in shortly to bring Jean to heel and to neutralize Phoenix, this issue also presents the catalyst for their involvement: a Shi'ar battle cruiser, investigating the extinction of the D'Bari star system and finding a single entity responsible. The cruiser's Captain immediately retaliates, and pays the price; yet before the end, he manages to reach the Shi'ar homeworld with evidence of the being responsible.

Lilandra and her Chamberlain, having encountered the Phoenix previously during a Shi'ar crisis involving Lilandra's mad brother, D'ken, are able to grasp the full extent of Phoenix's threat, and move to act accordingly.

As for the X-Men, they're also grimly assessing their own situation--one that seems hopeless, even before a startling new development that closes the issue.

As cliffhangers go, it's an odd one, given Dark Phoenix's parting words to the team. It's been shown previously in this story that Phoenix is now exactly where she wishes to be; and while the X-Men, unconscious at the time, have no reason to suspect Phoenix is gone for good, Claremont's dialog for her made her intentions to depart forever crystal clear to the reader. So why the about-face? And why the gasping shock-statement from Scott that she's ravenous? The following issue shows her returning to Earth not hungry, but "homesick" for want of a better word. It's a strange turn of events that only serves to set up a final confrontation with the X-Men, and, from there, with the Shi'ar.

As the issue which begins the trilogy featuring the fate of Phoenix, this story earns its status as a true X-Men classic--and at something of a bargain, too. With the book scheduled for a price increase to 50¢ a copy after another three issues, this seventeen-page story was only costing you a little over 2¢ a page. However you define "getting your money's worth," 1980 was the year X-Men delivered.

Uncanny X-Men #135

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

Monday, September 17, 2018

Ralph Roberts--This Is Your Life!


Meet Ralph Roberts, budding R&D entrepreneur who quit his comfy job at Stark Industries and decided to hang out his own shingle. Ralph's story begins when we meet him visiting his younger brother, Ted, at Metro College where Ted is hitting it off with Jean Grey. Ralph and Ted decide to engage in some harmless one-upmanship in pole vaulting--but the harm is yet to come.

As the evening goes on, it's clear that Ralph isn't forthcoming on just why he decided to leave S.I. and strike out on his own. But when he gives Jean and Ted (along with Scott Summers) a tour of his labs, he takes Ted aside and shows him a hush-hush project that starts to clear things up in that regard.

From what we've seen, this new armored character doesn't have much potential for future appearances. With a two-hour limit on how long he can remain suited up in the cobalt armor, Ralph has even less time than Captain Marvel did when merged with Rick Jones and forced to cool his heels in the Negative Zone until Rick "switched atoms" with him. Also, an armored suit that has a major bug of becoming a radioactive nightmare and blowing itself, its wearer, and perhaps an entire city to smithereens wasn't likely to interest the government.

To make matters worse, it looks like Ralph's pole vaulting accident has not only given him the temperament of a super-villain, but also made him especially vindictive toward Tony Stark and, by extension, Iron Man.

All of these circumstances have combined to give us "the Cobalt Man," a character who has managed to stay under the radar in sparse appearances, but, like the explosive device that he is, keeps on ticking.

And that leads us into an explosive new

Marvel Trivia Question

What's the Cobalt Man been doing for the past 50 years?

Friday, September 14, 2018

Battle Of The Bruisers: The Hulk vs. The Juggernaut!

In their first meeting in 1974, the incredible Hulk and Cain Marko (a/k/a the Juggernaut) didn't exactly hit it off as allies following their joint escape from captivity at Hulkbuster Base; in fact, they spent a good deal of time going off on each other, when the Hulk refused to stand by as the Juggernaut threatened an innocent family. Unknown to the Hulk, it was the X-Men who later stepped in and collared Marko; but 19 years to the month later (our time), in his next meeting with the Hulk, Marko is effectively wearing the collar of another while involved in operations in the Amazon. The only trouble is, the Hulk is not only unaware of the identity of Marko's employer--he's also in the dark as to the identity of the bruiser who jumps him from out of the jungle!

As we can see, Marko has thrown the Hulk a curve by attacking him in street clothes rather than as "the Juggernaut," in order to have an edge and keep the Hulk in the dark is to the extent of his power. At this point in time, the Hulk is also, in a way, a different foe to Marko, having recently undergone treatment by Leonard Samson and Maynard Tiboldt (better known as the Ringmaster) which resulted in the merging of his three "personalities"--the gray, savvy Hulk... the green, less intelligent Hulk... and last but not least, Bruce Banner--into an amalgam that was the product of coming to terms with his inner conflicts stemming from his childhood. The result was a more confident, less inhibited Banner who finds himself revelling in his new status.

But the new Hulk can still be surprised by a canny foe--and, in this case, taken down.

His neck then grabbed and locked in Marko's arm like a vise, the Hulk is rendered unconscious, still ignorant of Marko's identity as well as that of the mastermind of this operation:  the Red Skull, who goes on to take control of the Hulk's mind with the aid of Mentallo in order to have him join with the Juggernaut in destroying the Avengers. That scheme eventually collapses, in part due to Mentallo getting more than he bargained for in dealing with Banner's inner turmoil that still defines him; but fourteen years later, the Juggernaut gets another crack at the Hulk during the events of the World War Hulk crossover, as an embittered Hulk, returning from his forced exile from Earth, seeks out those members of the Illuminati who presumed to hold his fate in their hands and renders his own brand of justice. Inevitably, the Hulk comes for Charles Xavier--and Xavier's stepbrother, now working with Excalibur, yields to his conscience.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Trouble Times Two!

Following Steve Englehart's departure from Incredible Hulk, there was a small circle of writers in 1974 who pitched in for the nine issues published before Len Wein would begin his extended run: Chris Claremont, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas... and Tony Isabella, whose list of comics assignments in the '70s is like taking a tour through the plethora of new titles which Marvel was churning out during the early part of that decade in the hopes that a few would catch on with readers. By the time of his work on Hulk, Isabella had been with the company for about two years, originally hired to manage the reprints used in the company's new UK comics line and then floating as writer among a number of titles through the '70s and into the '80s.

Isabella contributed to two of these nine issues--in one, sharing the credits with both Thomas and Conway, while the other was his own baby, a tale six issues earlier which featured the apparent teaming of two of Marvel's mightiest powerhouses.

Col. Armbruster, sir--you said a mouthful.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Art Of The War

Following up on a previous post that explored the launch issue of the Amazing Adventures series "War Of The Worlds" from 1973, it was evident that the acclaimed yet troubled series would be off to a shaky start, with its writer and artist moving on to other commitments soon after the book's second issue saw print--and only a semblance of direction for moving forward provided by its creator, Roy Thomas, the series now waiting for whoever would pick up its reins. After Marv Wolfman stepped in to script the third issue, the writing position, at least, was secured when Don McGregor joined the book for what would be the entirety of its run, while pulling double duty with the "Panther's Rage" storyline in Jungle Action.

But who to pencil and ink the series from this point? We know that artist Craig Russell would come aboard eventually (with the tenth issue) to add his talents to McGregor's and provide the series with the distinction it still carries to this day; in the meantime, the upside to the book's artistic direction being in flux is that readers were treated to a succession of different hands that brought their interpretations to the concept and the characters. That would be, in order of appearance, Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, and Gene Colan, with a number of inkers that included Frank Giacoia, Klaus Janson, and Frank Chiarmonte. Below are brief samplings of their contributions to WOTW, though you'll certainly want to enjoy their respective issues in their entirety.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Mars Attacks!

It was hard to resist picking up the premiere issue of a new Amazing Adventures venture in mid-1973 that featured an adaptation of H.G. Wells' famous "The War Of The Worlds" saga that so successfully captured the imaginations of readers in the late 1800s and, later, radio listeners in 1938, before eventually making it to the big screen in 1951 and again in 2005. Conceived by Roy Thomas two years earlier in '71 as part of a list of ideas for new titles at the request of Stan Lee--a grab-bag of concepts which included "I, Werewolf" (arriving on the rack as Werewolf By Night) as well as new stories for Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and Red Wolf--Thomas's adaptation of WOTW was more of a sequel, offering a different take on the story of the Martian invasion that didn't end with the deaths of the invasion forces due to their inability to resist the pathogens to which we had become immune.

"What I wanted to do ... was something different. A comic-book which would be a vast, hopefully unending sequel to the Wells classic. A storyline which would pit earthmen in a kind of guerrilla warfare against the Martians, who had returned approximately 100 years after their initial invasion attempt ... and who this time had come, seen, and conquered.

"... As deadline time rolled around ... I had become too immersed with editorial duties to burn the midnight oil over scripts the way I used to with Neal [Adams] on X-MEN and AVENGERS, so I sorrowfully but confidently turned the scripting reins over to Gerry Conway (who now, at 20, has become virtually Marvel's senior writer, doing major titles like SPIDEY, F.F., and THOR)--and now the verdict of comic-book history is up to you.

"As for myself: to me, it's a triumph just to see the book in print after these two long, lonely years [of getting it off the ground]. I'll be watching its progress closely--more closely than that of many other titles ... and I can only hope that WAR OF THE WORLDS becomes the smash hit which I always wanted it to be." -- Roy Thomas, in the issue's afterword

I'm pleased to say that I own the entire run of the AA "War Of The Worlds" series, but apparently I was part of a limited audience. The final verdict on the series depends on how you'd define a "hit," of course, though there would likely be consensus that it wasn't even in the neighborhood of being the smash hit that Thomas envisioned. That might have been a different story if steps were taken to secure a regular writer/artist team for the book that looked down the road and plotted this "war" beyond simply that of Killraven and his band of "Freemen" waging a resistance movement against the Martians and their human collaborators; instead, following the launch issue, it seemed like the company was left with a concept that could just be handed off to whoever wanted to run with it, which does a disservice to those readers who might have been hooked by the momentum established by Conway and the efforts of artists Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin.

Unfortunately, we were all out of luck on all three of those talents. Conway's plate was apparently as full as Thomas's, departing the book after two issues. Adams, juggling several other time-consuming projects, could only complete pages for the initial story's first half, with Chaykin stepping in to complete it; but Chaykin, who, like Jackson Guice and one or two others, never seems to stay on a project for long, departed with Conway. Shortly afterward, Don McGregor, who already had his hands full with the "Panther's Rage" series in Jungle Action, took over the book for the remainder of its run, with a succession of artists such as Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, Gene Colan, and Craig Russell all lending a hand to keep the book on track (along with, needless to say, supplemental reprints to pad the book and thereby eliminate the work involved in putting out a full 20-page story).  Russell, for his part, would see the series to its end.

The book never escaped its bimonthly publishing schedule, which only decreased the chances of establishing a regular readership, much less a growing one. So in late 1976, after 22 issues, we were met with a farewell message along the same lines as the one McGregor was delivering for the Black Panther:

"This is the last issue of AMAZING ADVENTURES.

"Those were hard words to write, People. Hard, because there were still battles aplenty for Killraven and his Freemen. Hard, because the Martian overlords had yet to be conquered. But mostly it was hard because a lot of love and effort had gone into the production of WAR OF THE WORLDS... from the very first story by Roy, Gerry, Neal, and Howard right up to the collaborations of Don and Craig.

"And along the way, there's been a lot of love from another source... you, our faithful readers. You felt pity for the plight of the 24-Hour Man, you chuckled along with the child-like wonder of Old Skull, you cried at the deaths of Hawk and Grok. And you wrote to tell us about it. Those letters made all the fury and frenzy--not to mention all of the demonic deadlines--worthwhile. We thank you very much for that, People.

"But love alone, it's sad to say, cannot keep a comic book alive. The sales on AMAZING ADVENTURES were just not enough to warrant the continuation of the book.

"... [T]hanks to all of you. Thanks for caring."

Before the plug was pulled, there were two crossovers with other Marvel characters (as there were with other grim future scenarios, e.g. Deathlok and the Guardians of the Galaxy), with each story stressing that the Martian invasion was only one possible future that may or may not occur.* In August of '75, for instance, the Defenders cross paths with the Guardians of the Galaxy, whose Earth had been invaded by the Badoon--but not before another invasion had run its course.

While Spider-Man, following his adventure in the 17th century, is diverted on his way back to the 20th and becomes involved in Killraven's own struggle.

*That reasoning would seem to be hard to pull off with the Martians. For instance, in the so-called Marvel universe, we're certain that no Martian invasion ever took place in 1901--which means that where Spider-Man and the Defenders are concerned, the Martians would never have geared up for a second invasion one-hundred years later.

Yet the one lure of a sequel to the 1901 invasion that is sure to appeal to science fiction enthusiasts is what helps to sell the "War Of The Worlds" comics adaptation (in addition to its striking cover by John Romita, always dependable to deliver a sales-worthy attention-grabber):  the concept of the Martians returning to make another attempt at conquering our race. This time, do they succeed? And how? The answer comes with the slaying of one who worked on behalf of their cause--and the introduction of a man who become a spearhead for our resistance.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Race For Element X!

Things looked pretty hopeless when we left Captain America and the Falcon following a harrowing battle outside of a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mountain base. With an elaborate plan that should put him in the Hall of Fame of elaborate planners, the Grey Gargoyle, whose touch can turn an animate or inanimate object to solid stone, has maneuvered Cap and Falc into making it possible for him to board the SHIELD helicarrier, thereby giving him transportation to the secure mountain lab where SHIELD scientists are experimenting with the deadly Element X--a substance which, in the hands of the Gargoyle, will make him a threat to the entire world.*

And now, with the destruction of the helicarrier, only Cap, Falc, Nick Fury, and Sharon Carter (a/k/a Agent 13) remain to try to stop the Gargoyle from reaching his goal. But having already penetrated the lab's entry, the Gargoyle has wasted no time in seeking out his prize, whatever resistance he has to crush in the process.

*It's anyone's guess how the Gargoyle even learned of Element X. SHIELD security is looking like it must be child's play to hack.

And so we reach the climax of this story begun by Stan Lee, but who passes the baton to Gary Friedrich with his departure from the book. Do the Falcon and Cap have a chance against an invulnerable foe who's so far vanquished anyone who's tried to stop him?

Monday, September 3, 2018

In The Grip Of The Gargoyle!

There are a handful of schemers I could think of who might warrant the international spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., pooling its forces with Captain America to take down. Off the top of my head, in no particular order:

  • the Yellow Claw
  • the Secret Empire
  • A.I.M. (with or without M.O.D.O.K.)
  • the Mandarin
  • the Red Skull
  • Hydra

You probably wouldn't think to add your garden-variety super-villain, or organizations like the Sons of the Serpent, the Frightful Four, or the Serpent Society to the list of menaces that would have Nick Fury soliciting Cap (or vice versa) to help take on the threat. But when that threat decides to come after you, we're going to shortly see that it's a different matter.

Not long after his partnership with the Falcon had begun in earnest, Captain America was approached by the NYC police commissioner about going undercover as a cop in order to investigate a missing persons case involving police officers and city officials. Little did he suspect that the culprit would turn out to be none other than the Grey Gargoyle:

Hiding out in a stone cutter's storage yard, the Gargoyle prepares a master plan that will eventually become the focus of a plot involving not only targeting S.H.I.E.L.D., but also securing for him a destructive substance which could mean the end of the world!

It looks like this time the Grey Gargoyle is playing for keeps--
and it's coming right down to the wire!

Friday, August 31, 2018

Spymaster Triumphant! (Wanna bet?)

Of all the foes who have taken on the invincible Iron Man and proven themself a force to be reckoned with, it's a little hard to believe that the Spymaster could pose that great a challenge in a face-to-face confrontation with the golden Avenger. Given this villain's occupation, his strength lies in working behind the scenes and avoiding discovery, not duking it out with an armored powerhouse. To survive such a match, or even hold his own, he'd have to have the element of surprise on his side as far as his offensive capabilities--but how can we expect a spy, even a costumed spy, to be prepared for the likes of Iron Man?

Well, looking over his career, that often depended on (a) the circumstances of his mission, (b) how much he was packing, and (c) how much he was getting paid. We can start with item (c) first, and say that Spymaster has been in the game long enough to be in demand by clients who are able to pay top dollar for his services; suffice to say that taking on the types of jobs such clients require of him translates to enough dollar signs to make sure he's very motivated to succeed. And to ensure that success, item (b) is something he takes seriously, to offset any unforeseen opposition that he's forced to deal with; it's also something his employer will insist on providing, depending on how likely it may be for him to encounter opposition in the course of his work.

As for item (a), his mission today is to steal the file records of Stark International's stockholders--so you can probably guess exactly the opposition he's likely to encounter. That is, if the opposition lives long enough--because Spymaster is picking up a tidy $20,000 bonus for first taking out Tony Stark!

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