Given all the comics I must have read over the decades I've been collecting, I don't think I've ever had the courage to sit down and compile my own top 10 list of favorite all-time Marvel comic books. If I did, I feel almost certain that this one would have to be dealt into that list somewhere:
Written by Jim Shooter and illustrated by Gil Kane and Klaus Janson, this issue of What If? takes a look at the pivotal events at the end of The Avengers #2, when the Hulk decides to bitterly leave the group he became a staunch founding member of in just the prior issue:
Afterward, the Avengers conduct a search for the Hulk and end up battling him, though the Hulk escapes and later agrees to join the Sub-Mariner and team up against the Avengers. (Though it baffles me why the Hulk would want to form yet another alliance so quickly, especially given how badly the first one ended.) That battle ends in a technical victory for the Avengers, having driven off both Namor and the Hulk--and the team of course would go on to greater heights.
In this What If? story, Iron Man is once again determined to find the Hulk in order to ascertain his threat potential and presumably deal with him decisively if need be. But instead of returning to Tony Stark's mansion and planning their hunt, Giant-Man brings up a valid point that unfortunately results in severing the ties of the remaining members, effectively bringing the new alliance between these powerful individuals to an end:
And so, where it was a much greater compliment of Avengers that went after the Hulk and, subsequently, the Hulk/Sub-Mariner dual threat, Iron Man carries on by himself. His sole meeting with the Hulk ended fruitlessly, with the Hulk again escaping, though Iron Man managed to convince Rick Jones to return with him in order to assure his safety. But when the Sub-Mariner contacts "the Avengers" and makes his challenge to them on behalf of himself and the Hulk, Iron Man accepts but finds himself in an untenable position and is forced to improvise:
Thank goodness the thought of cloning the other members didn't occur to this guy, because we know from Civil War that Tony Stark's cloning technique is a little rough around the edges. But Stark is a pretty decent engineer, so he contacts Rick, Henry Pym, and Janet Van Dyne and makes a strong case for stopping a deadly threat like the Hulk teamed with the Sub-Mariner, and then pitches a plan that might succeed even without the power of Thor to help them:
But Stark doesn't stop to think of his own experiences with becoming Iron Man--specifically, the initial difficulty of maneuvering and operating in powered armor, even for the guy who made it. Also, being the designer and the builder, Stark isn't the most patient instructor, probably thinking that anyone should be able to step into his suits of armor and require only a small amount of time to acclimate to their usage. So it doesn't take long for tempers to flare, and for the "Avengers" to conclude that it was probably for the best that they disbanded in the first place.
That leaves Iron Man on his own, with the prospect of going up alone against two powerhouses like the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk. But even knowing the strain such a battle would put on his injured heart, he decides to go for broke, and make sure that Namor and the Hulk get a fight they won't forget:
And with the beautiful pacing and wizardry of Gil Kane, you're about to see Iron Man make this fight one for the history books.
After looking at how often the Fantastic Four have called it quits during their career, I was curious to see similar stats with other Marvel mainstays. So here, in no particular order, is a brief rundown of some of their own moments of abandonment. I probably won't go into as much detail as I did with the FF--seeing all of these break-ups is depressing enough, y'know?
I'm not sure about the new X-Men team, but I know the original team broke up a couple of times. There was the occasion, of course, when they were swept out the door once their "replacements" in the new team came on board and things got a little crowded:
I don't know why the old team didn't just put it this way: "Well, Professor, it's been established by now that our group doesn't appeal to readers, no matter how many costume changes we go through--so before we start dragging this book down again, we're all deciding to leave at the same time, no matter how odd that appears." I guess that would have sounded too bitter.
But the first time they disbanded was after Xavier was presumed dead, and their FBI liaison practically made it an order:
And you know things are bad when the announcement of your break-up eclipses your own cover masthead:
Speaking of bitter, you can't get more bitter than Nighthawk, who practically stomped his feet making this announcement:
Just because his silly riding academy that the Defenders were using as their headquarters burned to the ground. But this raises an interesting question: if you're a "non-team" and you disband, have you really disbanded? Probably not.
The Avengers came within a hairsbreadth of dissolving their original team, before Hawkeye showed up on their doorstep looking to become a member--and they instead began thinking about replacements for themselves. The only time I can think of when they officially disbanded (as opposed to when the Scarlet Witch ripped their lives and their headquarters to pieces and "disassembled" them) was due to a deception of the Skrulls--which the newer members fell for like a ton of bricks, but the original members had the good sense to investigate.
That's not to say that individual Avengers members haven't at times decided to throw in the towel and call it quits. In fact, even the "big three" have all had their moments. Iron Man, for health reasons:
Though as soon as someone stepped in as his replacement and almost got himself killed, Tony Stark suited up again. The same can be said for Captain America, who was disillusioned by Washington politics and corruption. Hey, join the club, pal:
His own replacement was cruelly beaten and slain by the Red Skull, and Steve Rogers donned his stars and stripes again and reaffirmed his mission statement, leaving his "Nomad" identity behind him.
And what about Thor? I don't think he's ever actually stopped being the Thunder God--come on, would you? But there were times when he was stripped of his power by his tantrum-throwing father and left at loose ends on Earth:
And of course, there was this cover of covers, where Peter Parker abandoned his identity as Spider-Man:
But Peter's resolve can usually be fizzled by his Uncle Ben, who always manages to reach beyond the grave to Peter's conscience with that "responsibility" lesson. So in the same issue, Spidey fans were treated to this uplifting final page which put everything to rights again:
Dr. Strange had a similar experience, when he stepped down from his responsibilities after spending a good deal of time as a prisoner of the Nameless One:
Only his Uncle Ben was the Ancient One, who granted his request to become a practicing sorcerer once again but gave him some tough love in the process.
So our heroes persevere--at times becoming disillusioned again, but finding their way back to their respective identities. The comics racks would sure look a lot less colorful without them.
I'm sure that in mid-1970, this cover looked pretty impressive on the sales rack:
But if you take away the cover's masthead, and remove the sideshow captions attempting like hell to get you excited about this fight, you start to have a better idea of the stretch it must have been to get this kind of lopsided battle to appeal to readers:
Yes, that's the Silver Surfer you're seeing, alright--hanging onto his own board for dear life, because a bolt of flame is keeping him off-balance. And no, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you--this is the same Silver Surfer who can remain standing while navigating meteor storms and riding the shock waves from super-novas.
Over at Comics Bronze Age, contributor Tom Kiefer was mentioning in a recent post the engineering genius of Magneto, with his design and construction of a geothermal base located a mile beneath a live volcano in Antarctica. Tom mentioned X-Men #112's nice two-page spread of the base, so I thought it might be cool for those of you who haven't seen it to have a look at it:
You have to hand it to a villain who delivers his captives to his hideout in an old carnival wagon. But the sequence here illustrates how Magneto descends to the base. Note that it's Magneto's own power that seems to be the only way to enter or exit the base, since it's what keeps the volcano's lava at bay in order to allow safe passage.
Looking over the copy that scripter Chris Claremont writes about the installation, I was noticing that he and artist John Byrne may have gotten their wires crossed on the base's schematics--it looks to me like the base draws its power from the volcano's lava, rather than Claremont's description of it being powered by the Earth's core (the former method certainly having the advantage of saving time on construction). Then again, the copy says that this is only one of several similar installations that Magneto has around the world--and since I doubt the other bases have the luxury of being located underneath active volcanoes, this base may just be supplementing its power with the lava's heat.
While the remoteness of this location serves as a good site for this installation, locating your base underneath lava doesn't make allowances for accidents. For instance, when Magneto is severely weakened in battle with the X-Men at the base, it's all he can do to escape in one piece. The base itself isn't so lucky:
Oh, and the X-Men? Well, they don't have any members on this current team with magnetic abilities, and it looks like Phoenix's telekinetic powers only work when they damn well feel like it--so I'm afraid their situation is a little like the Titanic passengers during the ship's last minutes afloat, as they scurry for safe haven that is quickly disappearing:
Believe it or not, the X-Men survived to lick their wounds and fight another day. Magneto probably returned to "Asteroid M," another engineering marvel which also seems to depend on his own power for entry and departure. I don't know--if you're going to pull out all the stops in designing your bases, it doesn't make much sense to roll the dice when it comes to your own safety. But we may want to wait for the memory of this base's loss to fade before suggesting that to him.
By now, we've all learned (the hard way) to roll our eyes whenever one of the comic books we read trots out a dramatic development for shock value. Deaths of characters don't faze us at all anymore--because if it's not a case of a character's death being just temporary, as part of some sales gimmick, then it's a case of a character whose death was "final" just being brought back through contrived circumstances. I remember in my naive days as a comics reader when I thought there actually were some deaths that didn't cross the line and were truly final. But when Bucky Barnes was brought back from the dead, Marvel gave me a hard slap of sales reality. That may have been when I mastered the Marvel eye-roll.
Back in the 1960s, though, these gimmicks were just getting off the ground--but it sure didn't take Marvel long to get the hang of it. For instance, while it would be believable for a crisis at some point to lead to a break-up of either the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, did you ever think that card would be played as early as their respective 9th and 10th issues?
Both were cases of false alarms, the "crisis" settled within just the one issue. With the Avengers, at first you were led to believe the cover was referring to the fight that resulted from Captain America thinking the Avengers had been responsible for Rick's abduction:
But the actual "break-up" was just a matter of Cap being separated from the team when Immortus spirited him away to fight on his own:
Naturally, Cap soon turned the tables and returned to help the Avengers against the Masters of Evil. I guess the cover shocker wouldn't have been so shocking if it had just said, "The Avengers Become Separated!" Though how about, "The Avengers Split Up!", which is a little more on the mark?
In the FF's case, a news broadcast seen by the Sub-Mariner (yes, on his underwater TV set--and talk about great reception, this was even before cable) sums up the FF's reason for breaking up:
From which we can only assume that the FF aren't any good to the world without a skyscraper home or all their machinery. What, you can't be the Fantastic Four if you live in a duplex or something? They started out in Reed's apartment, for Pete's sake.
But when Namor surreptitiously throws them a lifeline in the form of a movie deal, look how the thought of a million bucks brings the FF back together again. I'm so proud of their selfless fighting spirit, I could cry:
Once the deal is sealed, Namor reveals how he actually owns the movie studio that's bankrolling the film. But again, those dollar signs in front of their eyes has the FF ready to bring the guy his morning paper, if that's what he wants. Forget the fact that this guy who's bending over backward to help them is the Sub-Mariner, who is a proven threat:
(Maybe it's Namor's cool movie studio clothes that's throwing them.)
Namor's entire plan turned out to be to isolate the team members and deal with them under the pretense of shooting their scenes, probably so that he could have a clear path to Sue. But once his ploy is revealed, he honors his agreement. The FF become not only movie stars, but rich movie stars:
As you might think, it isn't often that the break-up card can be played and still come off believably, so it's awhile before we see another shock panel announcing the FF's end. The next time comes after a deadly battle, where Reed has serious concerns about his pregnant wife remaining in her dangerous role but also seems to have had it with his responsibilities:
But despite Johnny's knee-jerk reaction, the remaining members aren't following through with breaking up the team once Reed and Sue depart (in spite of their major bill-payer now gone). Instead, they just think of themselves at loose ends. No one even considers the idea of bringing in replacements, despite the fact that their team name is now meaningless:
Yet, thanks to the noninterfering Watcher's interference, this is going to be one of the shortest break-ups on record. Because he's come to warn the FF about a crisis--and when he finds out Reed and Sue have left the team, this guy takes interfering to a whole new level:
So once the crisis is dealt with, Reed is suddenly okay with his responsibilities again, and the idea as far as Sue is concerned is to keep her in seclusion during her pregnancy, with Crystal later joining the FF as her replacement.
Now, if you're looking for an FF "break-up" that lives up a little more to that term--well, there's nothing quite like blasting your son's mind into complete shutdown while he's being held in the arms of his terrified mother to do the trick:
Reed and Sue were already having marital troubles, and Sue had already separated from Reed, so I doubt a marriage counselor would have advised this act as a step toward bringing them closer together. Instead, it not only makes Sue turn her back on Reed again, but the rest of the team follows suit:
Now that's more like it.
But not if Doctor Doom has anything to say about it. Due to an intricate plot to launch a device into orbit capable of destroying the personalities of everyone on Earth and thus making them susceptible to Doom's will, Doom gathers the members of the FF back together (with the exception of Sue), though it's never clear why. Presumably it's to get them out of the way while he puts his plan into motion--but hasn't he been doing his reading like the rest of us? With the FF broken up, keeping an eye on Doom isn't exactly going to be anyone's top priority; for that matter, since Doom's plan involves mind control, why couldn't he just go through with it? The FF would have been none the wiser.
Suffice to say that, once the plan is foiled, Johnny and Ben are back with Reed faster than you can say "end of the Fantastic Four" (with Medusa remaining as their fourth member), and both quickly put their animosity toward him aside. And as for Reed and Sue, their troubles are settled once the Sub-Mariner (with Medusa's and Triton's help) concocts a plan to bring them back together, which culminates in this scene:
Gosh, it looks like the FF's going strong again, doesn't it? Well we can't have that. Almost forty issues later, Reed's loss of his stretching power forces him to make a decision--and by now you probably have a good idea what it's going to be, don't you?
There's that "replacement" idea again--but even though Sue decides to leave with Reed, Johnny and Ben ignore the suggestion and the FF completely closes up shop this time:
Yet history repeats itself, when it's again Doom who brings them all back together--only this time it's to use them in a device that will transfer their abilities to his cloned "son." The plan ends tragically (for Doom, that is)--but at least Reed has his power restored in the meantime, which means the FF are back in business. However, we may have finally reached the turning point for this gimmick because at this point it feels like it's been exhausted. The next time the subject is broached, it's treated more like the overused concept that it's become:
A "leave of absence" option seems like a better solution anyway, given that the FF is a corporation and a lot of time and money has been invested in sustaining it. And leaves of absence have worked pretty well in the Avengers--though readers are more used to (and more comfortable with) seeing rotating team members in that organization than in the FF, and no one really wants to see the FF become the Avengers. Of course, Marvel mistook that to mean, "Hey, why don't we have some FF members become Avengers?" But stay calm. We know that sometimes Marvel has to exhaust a gimmick before coming to its senses.
Jack Kirby's second and last Captain America annual (#4), produced while he was holding the reins on the Cap book and other titles during his late '70s return to Marvel, wasn't as bold in concept and rich in story as the Cap annual he produced a year earlier. In fact, if you were to compare the written teaser on the splash page with its predecessor, which had more scope, this time it would have an almost generic tone to it:
The wording here offers no spur of anticipation, except perhaps to make us wonder what Magneto is doing mixed up with Cap. But at least on the double-page spread which follows, we have a curious newspaper advertisement that indicates there's something more to this meeting than fisticuffs between hero and villain:
But first, let's get this issue's audacious title out of the way: "The Great Mutant Massacre!" I'm sorry to report that the only thing in the issue relevant to this title is the word "mutant." "Massacre" implies the killing of a large number of people, but the deaths in this issue don't occur on such a scale; and there's nothing "great" (as in "grand") about Magneto's plans, nor does he or anyone else initiate a slaughter that the title would lead us to believe. But we do have mutants. Magneto, for one; then there are his mutant hirelings:
As well as his mutant target, which will unwillingly help him investigate a mystery--a mutant small enough to fit inside a watch casing:
But this mutant, unknown to Magneto, co-exists with another, larger body, which reacts violently whenever his smaller body is put in danger. In other words, Magneto should be careful who he tries to put the snatch on:
So why is Magneto so intent on capturing "Mister One"? And do I really need to tell you that his larger counterpart is named "Mister Two"? Don't look so surprised. When you shake a Kirby book, a "mister" is bound to fall out from between the pages from time to time:
Much of this story is spent doing one of two things--investigating the mystery of Mister One and Mister Two, and following Magneto's efforts to recover Mister One and make use of him in his secret project. Captain America, at least, can help us with the first, when he finally deduces the reason for the connection between the two "misters":
As for Magneto, we eventually find out that he needs Mister One in order to investigate a small-scale space ship which has fallen into his grasp, and thereby access and control whatever power may lie within its hull:
It's certainly an issue full of plot devices. Magneto's little strike squad, for instance, is just hired muscle in order to gain his prizes and provide battle sequences with Cap. And while we know it's the secrets of the space ship which motivate Magneto, we never do learn anything more about the ship itself. Yet they all connect in some limited fashion to move the story along. "Burner," for instance, incinerates Mister Two, which means that Mister One's moments of life are numbered--so while he's inside the alien ship, he finds the self-destruct mechanism and detonates the ship (with himself still inside it), foiling Magneto's plans (whatever the hell they are--beyond the grasp for power, we never learn anything more from him, either). And Cap? Cap just fights his way through and around this mess, to no avail. It's a battle-heavy issue, to be sure--but it all seems so pointless.
So you'd expect at least the final page to connect the dots and put it all together, right? Well, we get an explosive climax, but I'm afraid all the answers go up in smoke with it:
Yes, you're reading that correctly: it's the last page of the issue, and not even Cap knew about the ship. And judging by the last three panels, he's clueless on pretty much everything at this point:
Join the club, Cap. We're wandering in a daze right there with you. Hey, mind if I give your shield a toss?
The story's ending also lets the wind out of our sails as far as the mutant it makes such an effort to focus on--the mind that shared two different-sized bodies. This mutant was the driving force of the entire issue, yet once it sacrificed itself no one gave it a second thought--not even Cap, who just drops the entire matter as quickly as Magneto callously did. (And as quickly as Kirby himself seems to.) I at least felt sympathy over the mutant's circumstances as well as a little sad at his death, yet Cap just seems to be dusting his palms together in the satisfaction that the case is wrapped up. Not exactly the model Avenger.
With Kirby due to make his final departure from Marvel in about eight months, he wouldn't have the opportunity to work on another Captain America annual. I can't help but wonder how this annual would have read if he didn't have one foot out the door at this point, so to speak, though that may be over-simplifying it. Over in Cap's main title, Kirby was still the workhorse--but the only significant story we would see from this point on would be one featuring the Red Skull and Arnim Zola. Bookending it would be more of Kirby's stock concepts featuring deformed creatures, science gone mad, time travelers, and dimensional intruders, complete with pat wrap-up endings:
Bet you thought it was going to be "Mister" Swine, didn't you?