Friday, March 24, 2017

God Of Thunder No More!


Having already witnessed the shocking scene where the mighty Thor committed the unpardonable sin of slaying his evil half-brother, Loki--an act which caused Thor to be summarily banished for all time--it's time to follow up on that story and not only discover the fate of Thor but also the many hidden truths which writer Tom DeFalco would reveal, one by one, which allowed the mortal Eric Masterson to assume the identity (and comic book) of the Thunder God for the next 25 issues. As we can see, artist Ron Frenz has given a sense of symmetry to the cycle, commemorating the points at which the "new" Thor made the scene and when the original Thor would reclaim the book.



It was a generous two-year period which allowed a brand-new and more mortal point of view of the God of Thunder to play out, though there were likely more than a few readers who may have been drumming their fingers on a hard surface while waiting for this storyline to run its course. And run on it did, stringing along fans of the original Thor with one red herring after another that might reveal Thor's true fate and thus would give the impression of the book circling back to restore the character. In the meantime, DeFalco was pursuing an intriguing (if at times interminable) story where an ordinary human suddenly found himself to be, for all intents and purposes, Thor--someone whom the average reader could hopefully identify with and get behind. The flip side of that coin was that the character no longer carried the sense of grandeur and nobility of the original--no longer set apart from the likes of Spider-Man or the Avengers or Daredevil or other human super-heroes on the comics shelves, regardless of how many Asgardians DeFalco would pack his stories with to compensate.

If you'd prefer to take each of these issues in turn and follow DeFalco's intentions for portraying Masterson as well as the many diversions that teased the possible return of the true Thunder God, that's certainly a valid and perhaps even rewarding option available to you; and of course now you wouldn't have to spend nearly as much time doing so or waiting a month between issues. But for those of you who want the answer without reading through twenty-five issues of preamble, or for those who have already read the entire story when it was published but just want to refresh your memories, the PPoC promised earlier to cut to the chase and put it all together for you, and we aim to please.


Speak for yourself, Odin! Some of us non-immortals aged two years to finally get this info!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Target: Tony Stark!


If we were looking for a likely cause of the trend that began in Invincible Iron Man in the '90s to hamper Tony Stark with a variety of debilitating physical afflictions that ranged from putting him in a wheelchair to his nervous system being compromised to rebooting his brain like a hard drive, we'd have to turn our gaze to Kathy Dare, his psychotic stalker (or is that redundant?) who caught his eye at a polo match and went on to insinuate herself into his life--clinging to him like Saran wrap, while just as suffocating.




We've already jumped ahead a bit and seen the devastating result of Kathy's pursuit of Stark, as a single bullet ended his chances of ever walking again. But how did this innocent encounter at a sporting event take such a deadly turn? Stark was known to play the field aside from polo, of course--yet while his many lady friends were frustrated that they couldn't turn his head more than briefly, he never inspired them to commit murder. (Perhaps a scathing quote in a society column was the extent of their retribution.) So what was the evolution of this somewhat one-sided and eventually deadly affair? How did Kathy get the drop on Tony Stark--and where the heck was that bodyguard of his? (Sure, we know the answer to that last part--but won't the news media be asking about such a high-profile protector fumbling the ball?)

It looks like we'll need our detective hats for this


Marvel Trivia Question



How did Tony Stark become the victim of Kathy Dare?

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Summons of Psyklop!


In previously taking a brief look at a couple of Harlan Ellison plots that writer Roy Thomas had adapted and scripted to feature in The Avengers, we touched on one which many of you might recall from mid-1971--a two-part story that began in The Avengers and concluded in The Incredible Hulk. It's a pleasure to revisit that tale and give it the full PPoC treatment--each segment a fine read in its own right, with Thomas tailoring the main thread of Ellison's plot to the different styles of both titles and using the Hulk to bind the two together.



It would be the fate of the Hulk at the end of Part 1 that cuts loose the Avengers portion of the story and allows Part 2 to proceed on its own--a transition that doesn't quite bear up to scrutiny, though we'll get to that shortly.

With Thomas's story built around an eight-page synopsis by Ellison, it's intriguing to attempt to decipher Ellison's plot before some of the comic book elements are dealt in. I'm assuming it boiled down to something like this:

The investigation of a missing person leads to a voodoo ceremony in a Louisiana bayou which prepares to sacrifice a human life to the Dark Gods--beings who were worshipped eons ago by a technologically-advanced insect-like race that lived beneath the Earth's surface. At some point, that race offended their gods and were put into a hibernated state; yet one of them is eventually awakened in our century and instructed to secure a living source of power for the dark ones to feed off of. Once these gods were sated, they would in turn awaken the rest of the insect race, who would then take over the world they'd inherited. In essence, the entire human race is in danger.

The missing person is discovered to be among those involved in the voodoo ceremony, in a trance state--and in his delirium, he spouts latitude and longitude coordinates that lead to an atoll in the Pacific, where an ancient image is found that resembles the mask of the voodoo priest from the bayou. The investigation leads to the lair beneath the Earth where the lone member of the insect race has secured and is preparing the living power source that will feed his masters. Before he can proceed, he's discovered and his plans foiled--and in their anger, the Dark Gods turn on him.

It's unclear whether or not Ellison had injected any of Thomas's characters in his story proposal, though it's likely since the plot as it stands isn't enough to justify the page count that Thomas received from him. At any rate, we can reasonably plug in the players here, at least some of them. The living power source that will feed the Dark Gods would be the Hulk; the ones who investigate and eventually confront their servant are the Avengers. Things begin when Captain America, as a favor to the Falcon, helps him look into the disappearance of a friend who has failed to arrive for a scheduled visit--and the leads they follow take them into the bayou and subsequently have them breaking up a voodoo ceremony where they find Ralph (the Falcon's friend) in a mindless state but pointing the way to another part of this mystery. At that point, Cap deals in the Avengers.

But how does the Hulk become a pawn in this drama? To get the ball rolling, it seems a few prominent figures have put their heads together to capture the brute and finally begin working on a way to end Bruce Banner's nightmare forever--providing nothing goes wrong, that is.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Yesterday... And Tomorrow


"...while I've battled major bad-guys as the astonishing Ant-Man ... it's scary to think that [my daughter] Cassie could be orphaned by an average Joe whose brain synapses happen to fire wrong!" -- Scott Lang

Since we began our look at Marvel's composite cover images released during the period from 1981 to 1992 with artist Bob Layton's cover to Invincible Iron Man #144, it seemed only fitting that we finish up with issue #244, published eight years and exactly 100 issues later. It's Layton who brings us full circle, once again rendering the cover but also handling both pencils and inks in an oversized 48-page story that will again provide brand new material from Iron Man's earliest days in his gray armor, though for different reasons. In that prior issue, Stark had been musing about his first meeting with the man who would become his friend and chief aviation engineer, Jim Rhodes, forming a bond under fire in the jungles of southeast Asia that would see them through the evolution of both Stark Enterprises and Iron Man. This time, Layton and writer David Michelinie (with whom Layton shares plot credit) have given Stark good reason for returning his thoughts to those early days--a reason which you and I would probably best label as "therapy."

Unfortunately, Stark is very much in need of therapy, both physical and mental. As this story opens, Stark is beginning the recovery process from a near-fatal attempt on his life by Kathy Dare, a former girlfriend who ranks right up there with Alex Forrest in both an unbalanced mind and vengeful behavior. (In fact, Kathy could probably teach Alex a thing or two about payback.) Arriving home, Stark was surprised in the darkness of his home by Dare and was shot, the bullet severely wounding him and lodging near his spine. The bullet was removed in surgery--but its passage caused irreparable damage to vital nerve tissue along the spinal column, rendering Stark permanently unable to walk. Dare was taken into police custody--but the damage, as they say, was done.

And so Stark, now a paraplegic, must pick up the pieces of his life and resume his work as head of Stark Enterprises, while his career as Iron Man seems to be a thing of the past. Michelinie and Layton have taken an intriguing turn with the character, given Stark's hands-on management style in regard to both his business and his personal life, to say nothing of his years as a heroic figure; now he must pivot and begin living his life in an entirely different way, just as any person would under these circumstances. As with his alcoholism and the prior loss of his company, Stark is faced with another situation where he must pull himself up and muster the resolve to go on rather than descend into bitterness or depression. The parallels to his experience in Vietnam--another instance where his life took a turn for the worse and forced him to re-evaluate how he would go on--are clear; indeed, the story would make strong use of that incident in determining if and how Stark will cope, as we'll see.

For now, however, we must--as Stark must--begin at the beginning of this process which, for Stark, means leaving the hospital and facing the fact that he's unable to do so under his own power. Thanks to Michelinie and Layton, it makes for an unforgettable page one, giving Stark a blunt picture of how his life would be from this point on.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Whosoever Takes This Hammer...!"


In this issue of Mighty Thor that displays a cover image of two Gods of Thunder, would you feel gypped if it turned out that neither of them was... Thor??


Or that Thor--the son of Odin, that is--isn't present in even one of this issue's stories?


We've been looking this week at issues from 1981-'92 that have covers with a composite format such as this one, indicating that each of the (half-)characters pictured has a part to play in the story inside. From a glance at this cover, those characters will be Eric Masterson, who's taken on the role of the Thunder God in the absence of the true Thor, and Beta Ray Bill, the alien who was granted by Odin the power of a Thunder God as well as his own enchanted hammer. But what about Dr. Don Blake, who's also pictured here? Doesn't he count as the real Thor?

Ay, there's the rub.* You'll have to wait a bit for that question to be addressed; to give you an answer now would spoil the big reveal. Let's just say that you shouldn't read too much into the first story's title, "The Day Of His Return!"

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Murderous Rampage of Captain America!


In our look this week at Marvel's composite covers from 1981-'92, we come to two covers of Captain America where one of them doesn't seem to meet our criteria--that of having two distinct stories within the issue that represent the dichotomy of the cover image. Though as we'll discover, it makes something of an attempt to do so.



In the case of Nomad, pictured on the earlier Cap cover, his situation is more introspective in nature--trying to determine his own role in life aside from being the partner of Captain America. Nomad, formerly the partner of the Cap of the 1950s, now must come to terms with a world that's advanced decades from the time that he knew, just as Cap had to--and as far as his civilian life, he decides to start from the ground up.




But at the worst possible time for someone coming to grips with a new world, the dangerous villain known as Madcap makes his debut--and his power threatens to bring Nomad's worries about his situation with Cap to the foreground.




Monday, March 13, 2017

Iron Man Has Your Back


This week, the PPoC will be taking a look at a few issues featuring composite covers--where the cover, like the story inside, is split down the middle and offering the reader a little more bang for their buck. The books we'll be covering range from 1981-1992, though you may find yourself being reminded of Marvel's line of feature titles from the mid-1960s which gave you two stories for the price of one. Both the similarities and the differences are apparent when you line them up together; but it's clear that Marvel, inadvertently or otherwise, had found a way to inject new life into a successful concept from its silver age.



This kind of imagery would be used sparingly in the more contemporary books since the characters involved were already established in their own long-running titles, but it shook things up nicely from time to time and no doubt made for a nice surprise on the comics racks (or, for the collectors among us, in our pull stacks).

Artist Bob Layton gets this ball rolling with his cover from Invincible Iron Man #144, which features Iron Man wrapping up his conflict with Sunturion (which also introduced the new outer space model of armor). As we'll see, the centerpiece of their battle--the Roxxon Oil space station--has been damaged, its explosive core hurtling to Earth; and Sunturion finds himself in the position of making sure his life's work, meant to benefit mankind (before Roxxon had other ideas for it), isn't instead responsible for the deaths of millions.


Friday, March 10, 2017

When Stalks The Shroud!


Our introduction to the mysterious adventurer known as the Shroud came a bit after the fact, considering the man had already made his mark--believing himself to have killed none other than Doctor Doom and, when he discovered his self-adulation had been premature, was more than willing to give it another shot. Created by Steve Englehart and Herb Trimpe as a supporting player in the drama unfolding in the pages of Super-Villain Team-Up between Doom and the Sub-Mariner, the Shroud made his first appearance in the vicinity of the Baxter Building while the Fantastic Four were in the midst of trying to help Namor recover from an attack by Doom designed to rob his special costume of its ability to keep him alive while not in contact with the water which sustained him, as part of a plan that would force Namor to once more become Doom's ally. The Shroud's subsequent encounter with the Human Torch raised more questions than it answered about the man--yet he proved a capable fighter against the Torch, and it seemed clear to both the Torch and ourselves that we hadn't heard the last of him.

All we know of his goal so far is that he means to attack Doom for some reason--and whatever intelligence sources he's working with appear to have led him to both Namor and the FF as the likeliest to have had the most recent contact with the armored despot. The Shroud has also demonstrated that his costume is more than a design suited to his name--it's also specially treated with asbestos, as the Torch found out to his detriment. And before you (justifiably) wonder aloud what sort of new costumed character makes a point of fireproofing his clothing, we'll soon discover that the garment is also proof against other kinds of deadly attacks--perhaps done in the name of prudence, when one is expecting to face Doctor Doom.

With the FF having failed to counter Doom's sabotage of Namor's suit, Namor was forced to capitulate to Doom, and was captured once he'd left the Baxter Building and then transported to Latveria. And so the FF have gone to Namor's rescue in Doom's storybook kingdom; what they don't realize is that the Shroud is following closely behind.

But before we go any further--just who is this 1976 character who stalks in shadows and harbors animosity toward Doom? Let's just say that you'll find the circumstances of his origin... familiar.






The twist to the Shroud's origin is the "branding" that caused the loss of his eyesight, which, in combination with his supplemental athletic abilities, makes him a variation of Daredevil--in his case, seeing with his "mystic" senses rather than enhanced physical senses. But being a "master scientist," the Shroud brings more science-based resources to the table, as we'll see in a moment.

(By the way, Shroud, just why are you posing in front of that mirror? You're effectively blind--and your senses can't make out what's in a reflection, sport.)

That brings us up to speed on how the Shroud came to be--but it doesn't explain why this man is so obsessed with killing a man he knows only by reputation. For that answer, we have to follow him to Latveria, where he makes his way to Doom's castle while the FF are engaged with Doom's reception committee.



Meanwhile, Doom is busy meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a discussion which results in a decision that stops the FF in their tracks when they finally reach Doom:




Facilitating the agreement between Doom and the U.S. was the fact that, thanks to Doom's machinations, Latveria is now in an alliance with Atlantis--and though the Atlanteans are currently in the grip of a nerve gas compound that has rendered its population insensible, Atlantis is still ruled by Namor, who now serves Doom.

The Shroud decides to seek out Namor in confidence, in order to inform him of his plan regarding Doom--quite a chance to take, considering that, in his formal capacity as a Latverian ally, Namor could feel obligated to warn Doom of the Shroud's intentions. On the other hand, should the Shroud be successful, Namor will be freed from his service to Doom. More interesting to the reader, however, will be the Shroud's rationale for exactly why he wishes to kill Doom:



Doom of course is one of the major villains of the world, worthy of a new hero's wish to make a difference; unfortunately, the Shroud's motivation seems to have less to do with altruism or ridding the world of Doom's threat, and more to do with establishing his rep.

The Shroud receives Namor's cynicism rather than his blessing--but regardless, he proceeds with his plan that night, just as Doom is feeling a bit lonely and decides to take custody of a girl named Gretchen, a daughter of one of the villagers, for her company that evening while he sets his hounds loose to hunt for wolves in the countryside. But before Doom can take advantage of his status over the girl, the Shroud shrikes... er, strikes!




Englehart contrasts the characters' temperaments nicely--the upstart vs. a seasoned menace who regards the Shroud's challenge as incredulous and even insulting. Yet the Shroud has come well-prepared for this face-off--and even Doom would have to admit that the Shroud makes a fight of it. In the process, we learn something else about the Shroud's costume: whoever has sewn its pockets is a genius, considering all of the gadgets and gear he's able to stow in its folds.





So far it looks like the Shroud has every reason to be confident, as well as he's staying one step ahead of Doom in this conflict. It might even be fair to say that Doom is on the ropes, with the Shroud's last attack forcing Doom to rid himself of a vital piece of his armor's protection. But the outcome of this contest will have to wait for another time, as a twist of fate removes Doom's threat, seemingly for good.




And while the fate of Doom will remain in doubt for the rest of us, the Shroud will end up taking quite a victory lap, riding the wave of his success for all it's worth and announcing at opportune moments that he's "the man who killed Dr. Doom!". Admittedly, it could be considered quite a feather in his shroud cap, under other circumstances--but considering how often Doom manages to have the last laugh, the Shroud may want to hold off on the talk show bookings for now.

BONUS:
This issue's power-packed cover by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson!


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

This Villainy Among Us!


When you're tossing around words like "fiendish" and "diabolical" to describe the Red Skull or Doctor Doom, it's a tough call to make as to which villain could lay the greater claim to those terms. It probably goes without saying that when you put these two men together in the same room, the sheer level of villainy would be off the scale; yet aside from each of them seeking power, Doom and the Skull would seem to have little in common with each other. Doom appears to hold the Skull in contempt, in both his character and the man's fanatical obsession with bringing about a Fourth Reich--while the Skull covets Doom's power base and resources, and would arguably be Doom's inferior in regard to a head-to-head contest with one another.

That said, we're all familiar enough with the character of each to know that it wouldn't be wise to count either of them out in such a face-off. And though they would each be loathe to admit it, they do share certain characteristics and traits. Both are masters of planning, as well as involving others in their machinations (with or without their knowledge); both are prone to blind rage and cruelty; both have a talent for manipulation; and, certainly, both feel entitled to grind the masses beneath their heel. On the flip side, each has failed in blatant power plays; each has experienced humiliating defeats; each has held ultimate power, only to lose it; and each has a particular enemy that they're unable to crush.

So what's their alternative? Would they ever join forces? Consolidate their strengths and present a united front against their enemies? It would seem an exercise in futility, given that neither would likely play the subordinate, and each would constantly suspect the other of betrayal given the opportunity. Doom and the Skull were mostly cool to one another during the Acts of Vengeance alliance, with the Skull instead coming into conflict with Magneto--and another alliance on a parallel world, which actually succeeded in wiping out the Earth's heroes, lasted only until their mutual goal had been reached. Each may want power, but they would have different expectations as to their reasons for seeking it out and how they would use it.

That would seem to leave them to battling one another, though it might be more sensible for each of them to mind their own business and not become involved in the other's affairs. The Skull really has nothing that Doom would want, and probably isn't even a blip on Doom's radar; but in the 1970s, we couldn't say the same for the Skull, who twice usurped Doom's throne in Latveria while Doom was occupied elsewhere. Suffice to say that in each case, Doom was going to make the Skull regret his arrogance.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Your Pain Is My Pleasure


Previously, we left a busy issue of Captain America with a few loose ends dangling, didn't we? Not the least of which was the likely possibility of death for our hero--along with that of the God of Thunder, the identity of whom is currently assumed by the mortal known as Eric Masterson. But let's quickly take a peek through the next issue and see how things turned out for the various characters involved.

Both Cap and "Thor" had come to the abandoned Skullhouse, the former residence of the Red Skull, to ascertain whether the Skull is truly dead--but the house has turned out to be not so abandoned after all, as the fiendish genetics scientist known as Arnim Zola reveals himself by springing a trap and capturing the pair with the aid of his pliable, obedient creation, Doughboy. Once Cap and Thor are helpless, the creature follows the instructions it received from Zola--to dispose of them at the bottom of nearby Devil's Lake. As we can see, Doughboy is well-named--and apparently dough can be dense enough to hold a thunder god as well as a living legend. At least, until the writer decides that Thor can cease being helpless.




Wait a minute, Cap--if you've put yourself in a trance-state, how do you expect to have the presence of mind to figure out anything, much less how to extricate yourselves from almost certain death? Fortunately, it looks like your "trainee" didn't need to consult with you on procedure here.




Cap is in for a few surprises upon his return to Skullhouse; but for now, let's cut to the man known as Cutthroat, an applicant for the vacant position of the Skull's chief operative, who got the position by being the last man standing the only man to revive from a three-way death match with fellow villains Mangler and Deathstroke. Cutthroat has been *ahem* cut no slack since he prevailed in mortal combat, immediately being relocated to a training facility run by the notorious Taskmaster and put through his paces. From all indications, it looks like the Taskmaster has his work... okay, one more time... cut out for him.




As for Cap, he's made his way back to Skullhouse to confront Zola--but it appears he's struck out on both fronts.




Yet it seems there are others who are interested in Skullhouse, for completely different reasons, as Cap notes the arrival of the villains known as Jack O'Lantern and Blackwing--the latter having an apparent direct connection with the Skull himself.




Cap's battle with the pair is inconclusive (at least where this issue is concerned), as Jack O'Lantern hurls a hallucinogenic bomb at him that affects his perceptions.

But what about Skullhouse? And Zola? For the answer, we must turn our attention back to the Skull and his current guest, the Viper, whom we last saw reach their own form of, er, d├ętente--yeah, that's what we'll call it--and are now ready to discuss the Skull's offer to bankroll the Viper's subversive activities. But before they proceed, another of the Skull's operatives makes contact with the information on Skullhouse that eluded Cap--which makes sense, since the foe that Cap was returning to the house to confront happens to be the one responsible for its disappearance.



All of these preliminaries would normally be leading up to the 400th issue of Captain America, though regrettably a lot of momentum is lost as Cap's title is about to be hijacked by the Operation: Galactic Storm crossover event. But two people we don't have to be worried about losing their momentum are the Skull and the Viper, who are about to take it up a notch, literally. I realize I mentioned last time that it would be best if we left them to their own devices--but, technically speaking, that's exactly what we're doing.




Note to self: If the Red Skull issues an invitation to sample his playroom, DECLINE.

BONUS!
The gloomy cover to this issue. What happened to that masthead, Mr. Colorist?


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