Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Tomb of Dr. Strange


Welcome to Part 2 of a gripping story where Dr. Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, sought out none other than Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, for retribution in bringing the curse of the undead to Strange's faithful manservant, Wong.

Clearly, the battle didn't go as the Sorcerer Supreme had hoped.



With Strange now dead--yet more than dead, his corpse waiting to return to "life" as a vampire--it would seem to be game, set and match for the character, unless Marvel plans to continue with him as a vampire/sorcerer (with obvious vulnerabilities that his foes can exploit). But the situation is even worse for him, since Dracula plans to enslave Strange when he rises in three days' time.

But there is a part of the human Dr. Strange which still survives--though that fact will do the survivor precious little good, under the circumstances.





This isn't exactly the time to pile on and add to Strange's problems... but with his body dead and drained of blood, and his heart and other organs no longer functioning, what was he planning to accomplish in merging his astral form with it? (Then again, Strange started out as "the master of Black Magic," so I wouldn't put it past him to be able to reanimate a corpse. Though that's bound to throw a damper on his love life.)

With this new setback, Strange's options are practically exhausted--but he presses on, nonetheless.



Can Strange pull a rabbit out of his amulet? Or will the time come when he must resign himself to his fate?

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Hunt And The Horror!


In May of 1976, there was no shortage of decent Marvel comics in the spinner rack to choose from:

  • Luke Cage, controlled by the Puppet Master, was battling it out with Ben Grimm, who had just started "suiting up" as the Thing;
  • Jane Foster fought to free Thor from a Gypsy spell that had also enthralled Firelord;
  • Spider-Man faced the strange threat of Mirage;
  • The Hulk was fighting off both Doc Samson and SHIELD;
  • Over in The Defenders, Chondu of the Headmen, horrified to see the new body which his associates had transferred his mind into, took his anger out on the Valkyrie;
  • The new X-Men were having their first meeting with the Sentinels and closing in on their 100th issue;
  • Iron Man was taking on Blizzard;
  • Captain America was fighting his way through the Elite's "kill-derby";
  • And the Avengers were trapped on a parallel Earth and fighting the Squadron Supreme over the Serpent Crown.


But hopefully some of you also set aside four bits for a compelling crossover story taking place in two separate titles distributed for sale in the same month, featuring the first meeting between Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and Dracula, Lord of Vampires--both tales drawn and embellished by artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, a welcome touch not only because both were highly acclaimed veterans of these characters but also because in a way you were reading a single 34-page comic (er, split into two, but you catch my drift). The fateful story begins in the Tomb Of Dracula title, where readers not yet realizing this was a crossover story couldn't have been happy to turn the final page to find a nail-biting ending that would be resolved in a book they'd failed to notice earlier.

For Dracula, this marks his first encounter with a mainstream Marvel character*, with the circumstances of their meeting proving to be shocking enough on their own--specifically, the death of Strange's manservant, Wong, attacked and drained of blood by Dracula. With Dracula located in Boston at this point in time, it's anyone's guess why Wong was such a distance from New York, roughly 200 miles away from Strange's sanctum. Yet it's admittedly a trivial matter with any number of available explanations, and certainly of no consequence in comparison to Wong meeting his death at the hands of a vampire; and while it seems certain that the only way we're going to be seeing Wong again is in an undead state, his master yet holds out hope for an alternative as he delves into the mystery of his disappearance.





*Unless you're counting his encounter with Werewolf By Night Jack Russell--or his non-meeting with Spider-Man, where the two only crossed paths but never dealt with each other directly.

And so the foundation is laid for Strange's hunt for his friend's murderer--but is it retribution he seeks, or something much more?

Friday, July 12, 2019

Who Watches The Watcher


Longtime Marvel readers who happened to take a look at the recent PPC post on the Trial of the Watcher may have recognized the names of both Emnu, who presided over those proceedings, and Ikor, who was mentioned in exclamation following the return of Uatu, our solar system's Watcher, to their world to account for his recent behavior against Captain Marvel. While obviously more alarmed at Uatu's outright aggression toward Mar-vell, Emnu had also presented a brief history of Uatu's many infractions regarding their race's solemn vow never to interfere in the affairs of those they observe--a promise that Emnu is all too familiar with, given that he was present at the time it was made (along with Uatu himself and Uatu's father, Ikor).

Much has been made of the Watchers' universal task over the course of Marvel's countless tales throughout its publication history--and how ironic it must be that their "spokesman" (as long ago appointed by Stan Lee) has been the one Watcher who has made a habit of side-stepping that vow, considering that it was he and his father who had seen first-hand the folly of such interference. And so it seems appropriate to retrace their steps and bring to light Lee's origin for the character, a backup feature to the 1968 Silver Surfer #1 which reveals why those who became "Watchers" took up that role, and where we learn that the race of Watchers is not only from another galaxy, but also incredibly old--arguably old enough to know better.

And yet our first stop is present-day Earth, where Uatu (a name that wouldn't see print for some time) is observing the drama of life and death that all too often transpires in a mortal operating room, while fully admitting that it's within his power to preserve the life of the patient whose doctors are helpless to save.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Better Luck Next Time, Mister Fisk


By the 21st century, what started out as a casual get-together of super-heroes for a friendly if competitive game of poker was now in full swing and a fairly regular occurrence, with word of mouth (and different writers) bringing in a rotation of new heroes who kept the game lively for readers. And while it was often Ben Grimm who organized these gatherings, from time to time (depending on whose book you were reading) there might be other characters whose chips would be getting a bigger share of the action.

In a 2005 story, the game itself has a new twist to it, with our players anteing up for an annual charity game with the proceeds going to the winning player's favorite charitable organization. And at this year's game, the table has some flush players in attendance--with the exception of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, which might explain the $20 limit.




The fact that Dr. Strange is clueless (if enthusiastic) when it comes to poker is a true delight to watch in this game, with our Sorcerer Supreme having no familiarity at all with the phrase "know when to fold 'em" and thus staying in until the showdown--at which time he triumphantly lays down his cards only to be told he has basically nothing. Of all the things for the Ancient One to have neglected in his instruction.

Inevitably, however, it will be Spider-Man whom our attention will focus on. We don't know when Peter Parker became so adept at poker, as strapped for funds as he usually is; things don't generally end well for people living from paycheck to paycheck (if that) who turn to gambling. Regardless, his perspective in sizing up tonight's players is welcome, though he tips his own hand in an admission of just how he manages to stay in the game.



With a $20 limit, these players might have a long way to go tonight if they want to end up making a sizable donation to charity. But a surprise guest will change the stakes of this game considerably--win, or lose.




Oh, now it's a party.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Trial Of The Watcher!


OR: "Better Late Than Never..."


There were probably a good number of us back in the day who wondered how the Watcher--one of a race of beings who took it upon themselves to observe significant events and noteworthy races throughout the universe while adopting a posture of non-interference with those they surveyed and contemplated--nevertheless tended to indeed make something of a habit of interfering and interacting in those affairs, while also managing to keep his activities on the down low as far as his fellow Watchers were concerned.

Inevitably, however, the Watcher's past was bound to catch up with him--and that time comes when Captain Marvel travels to the moon to investigate the activities of the Lunatic Legion. But Mar-vell's real surprise--and ours--comes when he heads to the Watcher's dwelling to gain information on the Legion's whereabouts, only to receive quite a different welcome than he expected.



Naturally, our first instinct would be to suspect that the Watcher is under some form of control, since he should have no clear reason to wish harm to Mar-vell, much less wish his death; but more importantly, given his role, he really shouldn't have even the inclination. Yet we'll find that the Watcher is indeed acting of his own free will. What's going on?

Unfortunately, Mar-vell meets the Watcher at a disadvantage, suffering from the effects of a drug-induced "trip" unknowingly inflicted on him by Rick Jones, the human who has been merged with him and who also suffers the drug's effects at his location in the Negative Zone. And so Mar-vell's resistance to the power of the Watcher is hampered, and short-lived.





Shock follows shock, as we see that the Watcher, however remorsefully, has apparently done the bidding of the Legion--a group of renegade Kree who wish nothing less than Mar-vell's death. What's the story here? Had Mar-vell not been debilitated, would the Watcher have slain him? And why? Whatever the Watcher's motivations, we can all agree that he crosses the line here with malice prépensée--and so this being who has often defied the strict code of his race will finally be called to task, when he at last stands before his fellow Watchers in judgment.


And frankly, it's about time!

Friday, July 5, 2019

When Came The Betrayal


The year is 2020, as Thor, the Lord of Asgard and Midgard, continues to solidify the Asgardian presence on Earth while suppressing resistance by force and the use of "reconditioning centers." But a group of heroes have managed to survive and remain free as part of a struggle for Earth's independence--and with the help of one Asgardian, who is close to the throne and closer still to Thor as a brother-in-arms, they hope to end the reign of Asgard on Earth by stopping the one who brought it about. By whatever means necessary.



By now we've been witness to the beginning and end of the saga which saw the implementation and consequences of Thor's decision to bring Asgard and the guidance of the gods to Earth's mortals, where Thor's good intentions fell victim to his own misjudgment and the situation took a steady path from questionable to bad to worse. We also learned that there have been a number of attempts to remove Thor--among them an initial strike made by the Avengers and Tony Stark in particular, a fierce contest which was eventually quashed. And in time we discovered what became of the hammer Mjolnir, as well as the banished Lady Sif who vehemently opposed Thor's decision for the Asgardians to remain a presence on Earth following the destruction of Asgard and New York City. But the fate of Balder the Brave would be settled in a separate story, where Thor, 150 years after the fact, is having a recurring dream of the events in question--a dream which will replay for us, in graphic detail, how the story of Thor's former mortal comrades, as well as the traitor, Balder, came to an end.

As we've just seen, Captain America's plan to infiltrate the royal castle has been uncovered--as Loki, the head of "world security," moves to crush this group with extreme prejudice.




We can pick up a few character tidbits from this skirmish; for instance, either Captain America's group represents a resistance "cell," or the number of super-powered characters still able to band together and fight has been whittled down by Loki and his forces substantially, no doubt with a great deal of pleasure on his part--so what we're seeing here may well be a last stand, and possibly a suicide mission. Also, given his apparent dependence on others to get around, Dr. Strange appears to be blind--and judging by the accessories that Loki now sports, the god of evil is the likely cause. On a related note, Loki's Asgardian power combined with his knowledge of sorcery makes him a formidable enough foe against mortals--but having stolen and mastered the Eye of Agamotto, he arguably outclasses any mortal or group of mortals he comes up against.

As for Thor, Balder raises a good point in how these mortals expect to pose a challenge to the Odin-power--though frankly, this group would need Iron Man and another heavy hitter with them for good measure if they were just going up against Thor alone. But at least part of their gambit succeeds--though given the outcome, it's a moot point.




Quite honestly, I have never been more shocked by a comics scene as I was by the image of Balder holding the life of a toddler hostage at sword point, and a prince of Asgard at that--especially in light of his reticence in agreeing to help these men ambush Thor in the first place, to say nothing of his refusal to fatally injure any of the attacking warriors. Would he have actually carried out his threat if Thor refused to stand down? I'm actually not confident in answering "no."

Soon after Thor began insinuating himself in world affairs, both Cap and Iron Man stepped in when he decided to overthrow the government of Slokovia*. That situation was somewhat defused at its conclusion; but here, Cap has come full circle with Thor's overreach, and feels he has run out of options in dealing with him. Since this is Captain America we're watching, the final scene does a good job of conveying the impression that, despite the odds, he may actually prevail against Thor; but with Loki arriving to tip the scales and provide a jolting distraction, he falls in perhaps the worst way possible--at the hand of a former ally and friend, who once embodied the spirit of honor and righteousness.




*If you think that sounds slightly like "Sokovia," help yourself to a no-prize.

It's at this point that we return to Thor in 2170, bolting awake and visibly disturbed by his memories of that night--the Odin-power turning his "dream" into a second-by-second remembrance of the event. Whether it's his conscience at work, or something he regards as an omen of further dissent yet to come, is something the story leaves to the reader to decide; but if Captain America were in a position to give an opinion, chances are he would still be holding out hope for the former.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"If He Be Worthy..."


The year is 2170, and the Midgardian city known as New Asgard is under siege--with the Asgardians themselves in danger of being slaughtered to a man by Desak, whose life's mission is to purge the universe of those who think of themselves as gods and liberate their helpless mortal subjects who toil on their behalf and struggle to fulfill their whims and perform their will. Since establishing their presence permanently on Earth, Thor and the Asgardians have given the world's mortal population the illusion of freedom and self-determination, yet forcing the guidance of the gods upon them--prohibiting religious worship, certain vocations, and any activity which Thor feels would lead them down the path once again to irresponsibility, violence, poverty, and oppression. In the process, Thor has lost sight of the good intentions which he began with, becoming convinced over time that mankind would not survive as a race without acting as their arbitrator regarding their choices and decisions.

In other words, the Asgardians have become textbook examples of the sort of gods that Desak has sworn to destroy. And on this day--perhaps the last day of their existence--it's become clear that, for all his power, Thor and those who fight by his side may be incapable of stopping the onslaught of this god destroyer.


Monday, July 1, 2019

The Designate... and the Destroyer!


"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
    (with apologies to John Ray and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux)

2002: After receiving counsel from Zeus, Lord of Olympus, the mighty Thor decides to consolidate his commitment to Midgard with his devotion to his new role as Lord of Asgard--by moving Asgard itself to a new vantage point that the mortals of Earth will at last be able to take in with their own eyes and look to with both hope and aspiration.



With the Asgardians now assuming a posture that effectively makes them mankind's benefactors, the human race sees a dramatic shift in its existence--falling under the stewardship of gods who follow Thor's lead to see "Midgard" become a world of peace and fulfillment, with Thor taking steps to see that disease, hunger and oppression are nearly extinguished. But a number of governments react adversely, seeing a threat in his actions and interference; consequently, they rise up against him, and war erupts. Through a coordinated effort, Asgard is destroyed by a series of detonations--and the resulting rain of debris and fire lays waste to New York City, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring more.

The message sent by this act is clear: You are not wanted. Leave. Some of the surviving Asgardians want to bury their dead, take their wounded and depart Earth forever, with the lady Sif being the most outspoken of those who feel the Asgardian presence on Earth has been disastrous. However, attributing the destruction to the actions of a few "power brokers" while firmly believing many mortals do welcome the Asgardians and what they have to offer, Thor's response is to dig in. Sif, vowing to actively resist such intransigence, is banished.

_____

2020, seventeen years later. The hammer Mjolnir has long since mysteriously disappeared, presumed destroyed if we're to believe Thor. Loki, who has been solidly in Thor's corner since he began his proactive stance in regard to creating his own checks and balances on the choices of mortals, has been appointed head of world security. Thor sires a son by Amora, the Enchantress, named Magni--"the god of strength."  The city of New Asgard (built on the ruins of New York) now adorns the land, and Thor has tightened his grip on Earth and its population considerably. By Thor's account, Earth is free of worry, want, suffering, and strife--though some would say "purged." Yet there are those who still strive for freedom and independence. Jane Foster, as one example, has been brought to the city to be interrogated for attempting to prevent a newborn from being "registered," and is met by the Lord of Midgard--from whom we learn what happened in the years following Asgard's destruction.





Jane is subsequently led away to be "processed."

_____

2170, one-hundred fifty years later. Thor has reshaped mankind to his liking--their needs met, their lives simple and uncomplicated, their planet idyllic, with "reconditioning" centers processing those who show signs of sedition. Assassination attempts continue to be made against Thor, with an earlier conflict having cost him his left arm.  We learn that Thor abolished war by abolishing what has arguably been its root:  religion, and all its denominations. Meanwhile, Magni, who has become a sympathizer to Sif's cause in persuading Thor and the Asgardians to relinquish Earth, has been spiritually led by a woman recently executed to Mjolnir, which has been sequestered all this time as it could no longer be lifted by its former master--an embarrassing implication that Thor is no longer worthy to do so.



Elsewhere, a being whose life's mission has been to rid the universe of gods who insinuated themselves into the lives of mortals and expected to have their wishes heeded, senses that the time has at last come for the gods of Asgard to answer in full for their misdeeds and meet their deaths.


Friday, June 28, 2019

The Psycho-Man Bids.... Death!


To hear the conversation that takes place in the opening pages of the 1998 X-Men/Fantastic Four Annual, you would think that the X-Men never shared a word with Wolverine about a 1996 game of poker that took place in the Angel's Soho loft, where Sam Guthrie was revealed to be a card hustler of the first order--playing the innocent farm boy from Kentucky angle for all it was worth, before he was invited into the game by his fellow X-Men (at the suggestion of Ben Grimm, the Thing) and subsequently proceeded to deprive the other players of their chips in no time.

For this evening's game, which the Thing will host at the FF's headquarters (now located at Pier Four), it would seem that Sam is laying the foundation for yet another hustle--no mean feat, since Logan has become something of a regular at these poker get-togethers and would probably see someone like Sam coming a mile away. Though he appears to be so focused on his plans for Sam that it doesn't occur to him that it's not the Thing he should be keeping his eye on tonight.



As for Ben, he's sweeping Reed and Sue Richards out the door as inconspicuously as he can--but Johnny is another matter, since on this night Ben plans on initiating his young partner into the big leagues.



But tonight, even a villain will want to be dealt in at


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

This Hero Reborn!


There may have been a collective sigh of relief that echoed through the ranks of Marveldom assembled following the conclusion of the Onslaught crossover event which served as a prelude to Marvel wiping its slate clean and starting anew--while readers, for their part, likely felt on the verge of finally putting the comics of the 1990s in our rear-view mirror and swinging the doors wide on the year 2000 to see what Marvel had to offer for the 21st century. And January of that year indeed looked promising, with new titles already in full swing, new talent on board, and, perhaps best of all, a return to artwork that didn't have its characters looking like they'd just stepped out of a funhouse mirror and sporting hair strands sharp enough to give Wolverine a run for his money.

Among the interesting new books coming down the pipe, one title caught my eye in particular--the refit of the Captain Marvel character, who reclaimed the name from Monica Rambeau and was given prime exposure in the Avengers Forever limited series. We can only assume that reader feedback on the character was favorable, if he was fast-tracked into his own series so quickly afterward (and with writer Peter David taking the reins of the book, at that). But there was of course also the hook of Captain Marvel being reintroduced, recreated, relaunched--though it wasn't Mar-vell, the original "man of the Kree," we'd be seeing, but his son, Genis-vell, artificially aged and determined to carry on his father's legacy as... well, "Legacy," the name he had taken before beginning a trial run in a 1995-96 six-issue series called (you guessed it) Captain Marvel.

But readers following the character from Avengers Forever to his new series were unintentional victims of bait-and-switch--because the mature, seasoned Captain Marvel featured in that book, who came into the story already an Avenger, was wiser, more battle-hardened, and more interesting than the Genis in the new Captain Marvel, a young man very in sync with Rick Jones given that the two are molecularly bonded. One would think that recycling the Rick/Captain Marvel union--which doomed the first C.M. series almost immediately and may have arguably been one of the factors which led to the cancellation of the second--would have been something to steer clear of in the third. But just look at the dizzying sequence of scenes which take place to get the character (and us) to where we need to be, one of which is adapted from what we witnessed between Rick and Mar-vell at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.




And when Rick is returned to present-day, along with Giant-Man and the Wasp, the new Captain Marvel is whipped up before our eyes and ready to be handed off to Mr. David.




Captain Marvel #0, packaged and exclusively sold with Wizard 2000, served to whet the appetite for our new character's new book, immediately involving him in a mystery where he battled an alien threat that only he was able to see; yet you need not have coughed up $5 for Wizard just to get a look at it, since the subsequent issue #1 catches you up sufficiently on where things stand, thanks to a visit from the L.A.P.D.


Monday, June 24, 2019

The Thunder God, the Deceiver, and the Surfer!


Nearly seven years ago, I'd written pretty much what I felt was all I had to say about my take on the classic Silver Surfer #4 from early 1969. Looking over that post once more, I found myself nodding my head in reflection, mostly agreeing with the in-a-nutshell assessment I'd jotted down which wasn't exactly a glowing account of the handicap I'd felt the story was under and the various things that seemed to hamper it. But over the years, my head kept going back to that issue, which I still regard as one of the pinnacles of the Surfer's short-lived series. Writer Stan Lee boasts on the issue's splash page that its story is "perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time!", which in a broad sense has some truth to it. (Maybe not the greatest, but it's arguably right up there; I'd be hard-pressed to actually pick a number one.) That story was published over fifty years ago, and both writing and art still hold up incredibly well. The cover alone ranks in the top ten of all time (that call I am willing to put on record), while the story's pacing and gripping characterizations are prime examples of what established Marvel Comics as an industry juggernaut.

Which is partly what brings me back to it today, I suppose. The overriding reason, however, is that I haven't been comfortable with the short shrift I provided it, given its place in comics history and the effort that must have been put into its production--nor did I do the story justice, which I must say is a page-turner and not a bad Thor story, either. The prior post remains a "talking points" rundown of elements which are mostly focused on the Surfer vs. Thor scenario; but it's high time the PPC expanded on this classic tale and painted a more complete picture of its contribution to the genre that many of us have found to be so compelling.

And fittingly, we should begin with this issue's stand-out star--which in this case, contrary to the book's masthead, turns out to be someone other than a gleaming, glistening alien with a surfboard.


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