Friday, October 9, 2015

Monsters, Unleashed

The Legion of Monsters in comic book form probably seemed like a great idea on paper--gathering Marvel's stable of monstrous characters from the mid-1970s under one eye-catching masthead, thereby attracting readers who were fans of any one of them while adding on the novelty of featuring all of them in the same story. The concept likely got its inspiration from a black-and-white one-shot (or what turned out to be a one-shot) published five months earlier:

Yet while that magazine gave the appearance that Dracula was sending forth his "legion" to terrorize whatever innocent victims they encountered, the issue was merely a collection of individual stories featuring the Frankenstein monster, Manphibian (!), and Dracula--and never the three did meet (except to pose for a cover shot), much less join together in some nefarious objective. So the "legion" concept applied only in the broader sense of the mag featuring monsters on the loose in general, and here were separate stories of three of them.

Writer Bill Mantlo's adaptation, on the other hand, formed a story around all of the featured characters, and perhaps made a good case as to why the concept was unworkable as he envisioned it. For instance, why would monsters in the traditional horror sense work toward a common goal, or even cooperate with each other--unless, say, their individual wills were somehow being dominated by one of the group? That wouldn't be the case in Mantlo's story, and it's one reason why it degenerates into such a tangled chain of events.

One of the things working against the Legion of Monsters is its own membership, which collectively makes the Legion itself a danger to anything or anyone it encounters as well as to each other. The werewolf, a creature of rage, operates purely on instinct, and will attack and attempt to kill its victims on sight--that's what a werewolf does. The Man-Thing aimlessly shuffles, and will act (or not) depending on whatever stimulates it empathically, behavior which is entirely unpredictable and potentially dangerous to foe or friend. Morbius appears to be more driven by bloodlust than even Dracula (and that's saying something), which often overpowers his judgment. Only the Ghost Rider seems capable of keeping a clear head, and keeping his baser instincts in check (at least at this point in time).

The "legion" finds itself coming together for the first time when, inexplicably, a mountain emerges on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Yet even as the Rider and the others converge on the scene, it's difficult not to feel how shaky Mantlo's house of cards is as the plot begins its progression. For instance, of all the victims available for Morbius to pounce on in Los Angeles, his victim turns out to be the werewolf; and despite each of them seeking the other's death, the appearance of the mountain makes Morbius set aside his thirst, and the werewolf his killer instinct.

"The werewolf follows... though what may draw such a beast you cannot tell." Too true.

Blaze's snap decision to investigate is easy enough to accept--but the more perceptive among you will have to fill me in on what he means by his "digest my dinner" comment.

As for the Man-Thing, the mountain is (somehow) seen and approached by him while he's in the Florida swamps, over 2,300 miles away, with very weak exposition by Mantlo to support it.

As the four approach from separate directions, the werewolf again lunges for and attacks Morbius, which is probably going to have him brought up on charges at the Legion's first membership meeting. (Don't hold your breath waiting for that gavel to swing down with this group.) Finally, though, they converge on the mountain's last and only resident.

There's no discernible reason as to why Mantlo has named this entity "Starseed," other than the fact that this mountain and its population of ancient humans were abducted from Earth long ago by an alien race, creatures who were eventually overthrown and the mountain transported back to Earth. Starseed is the only survivor of the experience--and the mountain's point of return turns out to be its original location, on the same land which is now Los Angeles.

Starseed appears to be a benevolent and harmless entity, making no aggressive moves whatsoever toward these four. But barely has he finished with his explanation of his origins when the werewolf leaps for his throat without warning, with Morbius piling on for seconds. We know of the werewolf's reasons (for lack of a better word) for wanting to kill Starseed--but in hearing Morbius elaborate on his own, it's difficult not to shake your head in utter astonishment at Mantlo's rationale for him.

Blaze is only partially successful in separating Starseed from his bloodthirsty attackers--having to fend off the Man-Thing's advance as well, and angering Morbius enough to make the living vampire now turn his bloodthirsty attention to him. The werewolf, meanwhile, continues to maul his victim--and the Man-Thing's unique power of inflicting death on the fearful brings Starseed to near-death.

It's practically impossible at this point to feel any sense of interest in the likes of Morbius, the werewolf, and the Man-Thing in terms of seeing them together again in future stories; and where we should at least feel sympathy for their being trapped in forms which they never sought and which condemn them to a life of misery and being responsible for the deaths of others, that sympathy is obliterated by the slaughter we've just witnessed. Thanks to Starseed's final words, they're made to realize what it is they've sacrificed by their senseless compulsion to murder.

As a one-shot in Marvel Premiere, perhaps this story works on the level Mantlo intended it to, as far as turning loose the leash on these creatures; but the story nevertheless comes off as hasty and ill-conceived, with the "monsters" here being driven to live up to the name instead of being given the additional dimensions that have come to the fore in their other stories. (Though admittedly, there is little to be done with the Man-Thing in that respect.) The Legion would be reformed (in more ways than one) over thirty years later, with the Ghost Rider replaced by the Living Mummy and Manphibian, in a considerably more wit-filled and cooperative setting--perhaps the only way to encounter these monsters without wanting to bury them forever.

Marvel Premiere #28

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Frank Robbins
Inks: Steve Gan
Letterer: Karen Mantlo


david_b said...

And sorry..., but Frank Robbins' art certainly didn't do this any favors.

One more reason to 'bargain-bin' this issue. Interesting concept.., just didn't have the right means to succeed as a try-out.

Anonymous said...

I think by "digest my dinner" Johnny Blaze just means relax for a while - he says "The flick I was going to catch will have to wait" suggesting he intended to wind down for a couple of hours.

Comicsfan said...

Robbins, with his distorted style of pencilling, may have been the logical choice to assign to a story which featured an assortment of monsters cutting loose--but I agree, david, that the result was disappointing.

Anonymous said...

... And when Johnny says "This is one nightmare I've gotta see close-up before I digest my dinner and it disappears" he obviously means before the mountain disappears not before his digested dinner disappears. So he's saying forget my plans to relax, I've got to investigate this. Clear as mud :)

Anonymous said...

I think I've seen variations on this plot before. In THE INCREDIBLE HULK, some years later, the being called Glorian, working for the Shaper of Worlds, comes down from space into a sad, depressed little town in the southwest, and grants the unhappy, disappointed residents their fondest dreams and fantasies. Everybody's happy in paradise.
...and then the Hulk shows up.
You can kinda guess where it goes from there. That story may have been written by Mantlo as well, for all I know.
But it is a recurring theme, aliens wishing only to use their powers and technology to help us, but end up getting chased off or killed.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, the way you wrestled with Blaze's meaning in his comment helped to demonstrate why it read so oddly to me. :) I don't think I've ever had occasion to use my digesting dinner as an indication of a need to act on something. But then I was never bonded to a demon or Mephisto. I think.

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