Sunday, June 30, 2013

Let All Survive The Day of Ragnarok


The last time we looked in on Asgard, the place was in dire straits. Loki had set in motion a chain of events that were bringing about the prophecies of Volla, the Asgardian seer who warned of the gods' end; Thor had his power usurped by a mortal who was transformed into another version of the Thunder God, who proceeded to brutalize him in a fierce battle and thereafter make off with the lady Sif; and Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, was imminent. Odin pretty well sums up the general mood of the place:



What's with these guys, anyway? Their most powerful defender lies there injured beneath the rubble and may be dying, and no one rushes to help him? Not even his friends? Don't the Asgardians have one lousy medic?

I guess Thor is on his own. Fortunately, as Harris Hobbs adds his own regrets to Odin's, Thor rises like the hero he is:


Saturday, June 29, 2013

All This, And Galactus, Too


Looking over the differences between the original cover of Fantastic Four #50 and the cover for Marvel's Greatest Comics #37 (which reprinted that issue), it occurred to me just how strange a read that issue's story was. On paper, it must have seemed pretty clear-cut: the resolution of the introduction of Galactus, featuring a battle between the alien and his herald, the Silver Surfer, while the Fantastic Four's Human Torch carries out a behind-the-scenes mission under the direction of the Watcher. You'd think there would be enough happening to easily fill out the entire issue; yet the story was wrapped up in just over half the space, leaving the other half to essentially spin its wheels with plot and character development.

So perhaps it was felt misleading for Jack Kirby's original cover to have suggested an image of an epic conclusion to the story of Galactus, when that story instead ends with an over-before-you-know-it quality. But Gil Kane's rendering of the issue for the reprint gives us an idea of the kind of cover we were expecting for the story:



With all the action crammed into Kane's depiction of the story, it's a little easier to understand why the original cover may have been toned down a bit. After all, the newer version gives us an impression of a different final product than we got, with a wider scope of action than we saw. For one thing, the FF were mostly on the sidelines while the battle between Galactus and the Surfer took place, with the exception being the Torch who was sent on a glorified errand. For whatever reason, Galactus--the main threat in this three-part story--is downplayed on both covers. On Kirby's he's absent altogether--while the Surfer, who at most has had a minor role throughout, is given practically the entire allotment of cover space.

Yet both covers have one thing in common--their perplexing captions. Given that this is the character's first appearance, the Silver Surfer has had no saga, startling or otherwise--nor will he have had one by story's end. In hindsight, he's unquestionably starting a saga--and with a cover appearance that eclipses the Fantastic Four in their own magazine, as well as scoring the issue's title, he's clearly being primed for greater exposure. But he'll need to get some mileage under his board before we can look back on his saga. Maybe he's making more of a startling appearance right now. Also, it probably goes without saying that the caption mentioning him on Kane's cover is shamelessly pulling in fans of the Surfer's subsequent appearances with a "hey, here's more of him" teaser--yet the Surfer is only "back" in a nostalgic sense.

As for the "Doomsday--Plus One!" caption, the reference is somewhat lost on me. The reprinted story is about four years before the Joe Gill/John Byrne Charleton Comics series of the same name--but if I had to take a guess, I suppose the phrase refers to the day after doomsday. If so, the newer cover mimics Kirby's in the sense that the original also makes such a reference, by having a graphic of Johnny Storm's first day at college be an indication that the danger from Galactus will pass, and life will go on.

And boy, does it ever; in fact, you'd think the departure of Galactus by "dimensional displacement" also swept everyone back to their normal lives as if he'd never appeared. After the Surfer departs, off to start his startling saga, writer Stan Lee takes advantage of all the leftover pages to lay some groundwork for future developments. Though it's debatable how much of a substitute Coach Thorne is for Galactus:



But there's still plenty of the FF to shuffle around. Like Sue and Reed, who seem to have a more difficult time being married in the Baxter Building than they did being single in the Baxter Building:



And the Thing, who thinks his girlfriend, Alicia, has dumped him for the Silver Surfer, and sees that his options with other women are limited:



And the Torch, who tries to forget about Crystal (who's trapped behind a barrier around the Great Refuge) by enrolling in college classes:



But even the issue's last panel acknowledges that the story turns out somewhat at loose ends, while doing what it can to make sure readers know things will be back on track in future issues:



Though come to think of it, we probably could have called this issue "The Startling Saga of Wyatt Wingfoot!", put his image in place of the Surfer's on Kirby's cover, and pretty much ended up with no discrepancy in the tone of the story, eh?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Just In Time for Ragnarok--The New Thor!


You've already seen how much a one-sided battle can bring a story down--but did you know how good one could be? And it all started in the pages of The Mighty Thor, with three presumptuous mortals who--get this--wanted to film Ragnarok. Meet Thor's old buddy, journalist Harris Hobbs, and his production crew, who have stowed away in some equipment Thor was bringing to Asgard:



As you can see, Thor wasn't too keen on allowing Hobbs and his crew to set foot in Asgard. Fortunately, for reasons of his own, Loki was. And those reasons became more clear when Hobbs' cameraman, "Red" Norvell, fell hopelessly in love with the lady Sif and was sorely tempted by Loki to be mystically transformed to be on equal standing with Thor so that he would have a chance with her. And to do that, he needed to accessorize:



Norvell is understandably a little overwhelmed at the prospect of using Asgardian ritual and possessions to risk his safety in untested waters. But, come on--this is a love-sick mortal who's being tempted by incredible power, and he's being egged on by a master of deceit like Loki. What do you think he's going to do?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Final Destination


If you've seen any of the books or movies of the early 1950s, you know that people interacted with each other a little differently in those days. And in some of the comics stories of Marvel's "father" company in the industry, Atlas Comics, where average people instead of costumed heroes took center stage to deal with monsters and weird happenings and the like, we get priceless glimpses of what passed for normal behavior in those so-called "simpler times." For instance, look how easy it is for sleazeballs like Mac Farrand to pick up women:



As you can see, Mac is one of those jerks who doesn't take "no" for an answer. Even when the lady threatens to call a cop, Mac feels entitled to just stake his claim:





Mac's not literally in the driver's seat, but he certainly feels like it, doesn't he? He doesn't really care about the lady's prior appointment with a blind date, since he's breezed right in to take the guy's place. Yet you may have guessed that this lady is more than she appears to be. And since we're probably all in agreement that Mac's arrogance and presumption scream for a comeuppance, it's only appropriate that his story ends with him doing the screaming:



Now we have a good idea why Thanos is so taken with Death--she does have a certain talent for sadism that's hard to resist. I don't think there will be many women who will shed a tear for one less guy like Mac prowling the streets, do you? Though I hope you ladies now understand why men seldom have anything good to say about women drivers.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Battle Of The Century!


Remember when Thundra made such a great impression in her first appearance?



And how pumped we were when it looked like she and the Thing were finally going to have a knock-down drag-out battle issue?


Ha ha! You didn't actually make the mistake of opening that issue, did you?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tough Choice: Perfume, or Dr. Spectrum?


Not only will you find 1978's Avengers Annual #8 to be your basic all-action issue:


You'll also get to see an evangelical minister as the new Dr. Spectrum. Praise be.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Standoff!


Dissension In The Ranks


When resentments and disagreements boil over,
even allies can turn against each other in fierce battle that can bring the house down.

(And often does!)


FEATURING:

The "Big 3" Avengers


We're so used to seeing the founding members of the Avengers settle the internal differences of the team with deliberation from the perspective of their experience that sometimes it's easy to forget that these three men are also individuals--seasoned individuals, who forged their identities and their status separately, well before deciding to join ranks in common cause. So it's appropriate to acknowledge that, since their lives are often spent beyond the walls of Avengers Mansion, they're at times disposed to handle their affairs as they see fit, without feeling the need or obligation to confer with their teammates. None of these men are perfect, of course--so at those times when one of them has crossed the line in their dealings with their respective foes, their comrades will either decide to stay on the sidelines and see how the situation plays out, or feel the need to step in.

And when Thor decides to overthrow the despotic government of the eastern European country of Slokovia, Iron Man is asked by the U.S. government to definitely step in:


Friday, June 21, 2013

The Thrill Is Gone


When the original Avengers took a leave of absence and passed the torch to Captain America so that he could lead a new team, Cap had a serious case of cabin fever. So he pursued an option that seemed perfect for his skills and experience:



Eventually, though, Cap was able to complete his letter and send it off to SHIELD. Though it seemed that SHIELD was taking a "don't call us, we'll call you" approach, which led to confusion:



To grasping at straws:



To downright obsession:



And when it seemed like Cap was going to get his wish (though it would turn out to be a set-up by the Swordsman), look who's all but doing cartwheels:



Finally, it was Fury who sought out Cap, in order to tackle "Them". And at the wrap-up, Cap at last had his foot in SHIELD's door:



So now that Cap has his cake and can eat it, too--i.e., still fighting alongside the Avengers as well as going on missions with SHIELD--you'd think he'd be happy as a lark, right? Right?


I HOPE THAT SHIELD AGENT KICKS HIM WHERE IT HURTS.
(And Fury finally does.)

New Material for the New X-Men


X-Men Annual #3 was distinctive for me in a number of ways. It was the first X-Men annual that I bought--issues 1 and 2 were simply reprints of prior material from the main title, a decision which probably did little to endear readers to the original team and perhaps gave the indication that even Marvel couldn't think of material to write for these people. The third issue also featured the "new" X-Men for the first time in an annual, at the time when Cyclops led the team of Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Banshee, and the X-Men book was extremely popular on the comics rack.

The issue also was an amazing assemblage of creative talent--written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by George Perez, and inked by Terry Austin, cramming the issue with 46 pages of first-rate work. And, like the fifth X-Men annual, this issue isn't hampered by the careful storytelling being done in the regular monthly issue and gives the team more room to just cut loose, yet still retain Claremont's nice touches of characterization which set X-Men apart from the rest of Marvel's line.

The issue's story ties in with a prior Avengers tale, where the team was forced to clash with Arkon (the "Magnificent") who had been driven to save his own world by destroying ours in an atomic holocaust. In fact, given the similarities between the two stories and the way the new one plays out (at least in terms of battle), it might seem the latter story is simply siphoning the action elements from its predecessor and substituting a threat to Storm's life for the threat to Earth dealt with by the Avengers. But there are enough differences--particularly that of seeing the X-Men's style of battle here, rather than the Avengers'--that it's easy enough to regard this story as simply a new take on the original.

"A Fire In The Sky!" starts off as several X-Men stories have successfully opened with--a session in the team's Danger Room. I think this is before the Room got souped up with Shi'ar technology, operating instead with a number of mechanical devices and traps--which I think better gives the impression of the "team training" spirit of the room and practice of skills, rather than the image of the X-Men being soldiers on some holographic battlefield. We already know at this point that Arkon has arrived on Earth and is heading to X-Men HQ; but Claremont gives a generous amount of space for just the X-Men in these first pages, which serves to present the team in a great and dynamic way for any new reader who was tempted to sample the book through this annual. And I can't tell you how nice it was to flip open an X-Men annual and see brand new material, including this beautiful double-page panel:



I probably don't have to tell you that, in typical X-Men fashion, the team ends up trashing the place after an accident sends the Room out of control and everyone has to fight for their life just to shut it off. Besides, we have Arkon to get to, after he's tried to capture Storm and has been rebuffed accordingly.



You can probably already tell that there's a marked difference between Perez's action-oriented pencilling vs. John Byrne's more "presentation" approach to the team. Each have their merit, and there's no question that Byrne's style suits the regular monthly title's pacing. Yet in an annual, it's nice to see things taken up a notch. And with Perez's work, you can see pacing and then some.




Arkon may look on the ropes here (and probably spitting out a few thorns off-panel), but he's succeeded in sending Storm back to his world--and since he's not forthcoming with any details (despite a great sequence with Cyclops needing to check Wolverine before he proceeds with his unique method of "persuasion"), the team makes use of Arkon's transportation methods and returns with him--landing in the middle of armed warriors. Now, if you have the X-Men challenge a warlike race who thrive on battle and don't know the meaning of surrender, what do you get? You get another beautiful double-page spread like this one, that's what.



Eventually, the X-Men battle their way to Storm, who we discover is needed to supply power to recharge a machine which Iron Man had designed to provide energy to this world's life-sustaining orbiting energy ring that was once again disintegrating. The effort would most likely kill Storm, but she was willing to take the risk; yet Cyclops called an end to hostilities and proposed to join his power to hers and thereby decrease the risk to her life.




And, fortunately:



The story ends rather abruptly once the dust settles, with the X-Men being honored by Arkon and sent home. Yet on the whole, this is a fine story for an annual, as well as a nice link in the chain of the new team's integration with each other. We haven't seen the last of Arkon in an X-Men annual, though--he reappears in that fifth issue I mentioned, along with the Brotherhood of Badoon and the Fantastic Four.  I can almost see the original X-Men folding their arms in a huff.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Stick-Um Up!


Whatever this guy calls himself, he's usually on the receiving end, isn't he?



Say what you will about the Trapster, the man can take a hit. Thank goodness he'd changed his name by this time--"Target: Paste-Pot Pete!" probably wouldn't have had the same impact.

The Trapster to me has always been given the short shrift in his appearances. Other characters with his skill set have gone on to have better reps in comics--the Spymaster, Arcade, the Black Panther (who was pretty good at setting traps himself, back in the day)--yet the Trapster, who maintains something of a high profile, often doesn't present much of a credible threat in the eyes of either his foes or his writers. He might have had better luck calling himself something like "Arsenal," which would have given him more of an aggressive posture and put the emphasis of his threat more on offense than defense. The "Trapster," instead, gives the impression of someone waiting for the right opportunity to deploy a weapon or to spring, well, a trap. In the Frightful Four, that made sense--but on his own, it makes him depend too much on stealth.

As well as that dopey paste gun.

Yes, "dopey." I honestly couldn't think of a better word for it.

Though the Trapster puts a lot of stock in his paste gun, like it's this supreme weapon or something:



Did you ever hear an all-powerful weapon go "zut"? I'm betting you haven't.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Terror of the Toad Men!


In the early days of The Incredible Hulk, it didn't take a rocket scientist--or Bruce Banner--to figure out the direction and tone which writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby were giving the book. In fact, it read very much like one of those old monster comics which Steve Does Comics can't get enough of:




Mild-mannered milksop physicist by day--raging, bitter brute by night. "Milksop," as General "Thunderbolt" Ross often refers to Banner, is one of those words you feel compelled to look up:


I don't know too many indecisive physicists, but I'm not about to get in Ross's face and argue it with him.

At any rate, those early Hulk issues had all the makings of a monster mag spin-off. I mean, just look at issue #2, where the Hulk and all of Earth encounter the terrifying Toad Men:


Monday, June 17, 2013

Spoilers With A Grain of Salt


Around the mid-2000s, Marvel published a series of books heralding "The End" for several of its characters--stories set in the future, portraying presumably the final adventures of these heroes. I collected two or three of these series, enough to finally realize that they were essentially What If? stories without the masthead; because I don't think there's one reader who's prepared to hold up their hand and declare, "I now know how the story of [FILL IN HERO(ES) HERE] will end." It wouldn't make sense for Marvel to go all in and put all of its cards on the table in this way--because once you uncork that bottle, for almost your entire line of books, you're going to have a hell of a time sticking to the results from that point on, as far as keeping the characters intact and making sure their lives and histories proceed in the direction you've set out.

So at some point, "The End" books will be tagged with the old "one possible future" disclaimer--assuming Marvel even bothers. Does anyone even remember the details of how the X-Men "ended"? What characters were still alive by that point? What were the events of their final battle? *shrug* Neither do I.

Which brings me to two of the oddest comics in my collection, which went a step beyond "The End" and published the I-mean-it-this-time FINAL stories of its characters:


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Limited Engagements


Welcome to Marvel's late 1980s period, where no Limited Series stone went unturned:




These particular four are only the tip of the iceberg, as the concept went well beyond the '80s, but they give you a good idea of how Marvel was embracing the concept of the "limited series." Supplementing and often offering tie-ins with their regularly published host titles, they perhaps proved to be not only excellent marketing tools but sales successes in their own right. Readers were provided with a nice, compact adventure, knowing exactly when it would be wrapped up and not made to feel like they needed to invest time in the regular title in order to get a sense of what was going on; and since the various series were at times a grab-bag of characters from different titles (a feature the Secret Wars limited series took to the, er, limit), they could broaden their appeal on the rack to a wider range of readership, as well as introduce readers to characters they might not otherwise plop down change to read. Think Marvel Team-Up with more room and scope to work with.

So if Marvel could somehow devote the creative staff necessary to produce limited series on a semi-regular basis, the company could in essence increase its output of "new titles" and thus experience an increase in monthly sales (or at the very least, use the profits to make up for poor sales for any given month), without taking on the risk of sustaining a new regular monthly title featuring a concept or character that failed to catch on (of which I can think of no better example than the New Universe stable of titles, also appearing during this period).

Though you can't help but wonder why a title's annual, "king-size special," having something of a similar concept--a self-contained story using sellable characters in a greater number of pages--often phoned in a story of poor quality, or, even worse, went to press with nothing but reprinted material. If staff came up short with only one story per title per year, how was Marvel going to maintain production of a number of limited series? Annuals were even a better deal for readers, price-wise--and there was only one to buy, vs. an investment of several issues for a limited series. If quality wasn't up to par, limited series would develop a rep that would have readers shunning them across the board.

Yet with the exception of one, I very much enjoyed the series pictured above. Each had its good points; the stories managed to fill out the expanded format decently; and the creative teams, whatever their workloads on their other titles, stepped up to the plate and delivered some excellent product. Let's briefly touch on each.

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