Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Staggering Saga Of... They!

The machinations of the mysterious group known as They (no relation to "Them," an organization later referred to as Advanced Idea Mechanics) reach back to 1973, as they began to insert themselves into the affairs of super-beings for reasons unknown--as unknown as their identities, always appearing in shadow when they deigned to appear at all. We first learned of them when the Orb made his play to wrest back control of the cycle show owned and operated by the Ghost Rider and his love, Roxanne Simpson; and for the next year, They continued to act behind the scenes in Marvel Team-Up stories to sow chaos and even widespread destruction that the book's guest-star would attempt to quash with the help of either Spider-Man or the Human Torch.

At the time, their motives were anyone's guess, their actions as diverse as they were unpredictable. From what would seem to be fairly low-key involvement in supplying the Orb with gear to win back the business he helped to found, They began to flex their influence more forcefully, both around and even beneath the globe. It all breaks down as follows:

March-April, 1974 (four months following the Orb's appearance)

Traveling to the Savage Land, Vincent Stegron, an assistant to Curt Connors, uses an extract for cell regeneration to become Stegron, the Dinosaur Man, while intending to transport the region's dinosaurs to civilization in an insane plan to see their return to planetary dominance. And guess who provides the "ark" that will bring them all to New York?

You wouldn't think dinosaurs would be at all simple to corral--but Spider-Man does it as easy as you please, thanks to a super-strong if unstable formula that the Black Panther gives him to modify his webbing. Neither of these heroes wonders how an under-the-radar lab assistant like Stegron got his hands on a mammoth sky ark that can transport dinosaurs, nor do they seem interested at all in reverse engineering it to find any clues as to who created it--a lucky break for They, who it seems might have another pawn in writer Len Wein.

October, 1974

The witch doctor of the Lava Men receives a vision that leads him to machinery abandoned by the Mole Man which can be adapted to activate every volcano on Earth, thereby drowning the surface world in molten magma.

Thor and the Human Torch show up to destroy the machine, with Wein finally giving us our first glimpse of They--who strike us as little more than mischievous malefactors with too much time on their hands.

December, 1974

Spider-Man and Hercules team up to stop a series of deadly earth tremors in Manhattan. But the culprit turns out to be a pawn of parties as yet unknown.

January, 1977

With neither Wein nor Gerry Conway (who scripted the Spidey/Hercules tale) showing any further interest in fleshing out They, the group lies dormant for two years until a link to them is established in The Man Called Nova--yet we won't truly learn of that link for some time, since writer Marv Wolfman appears either unaware of any plans involving They (assuming there are any concrete plans at this point) or uninterested in dropping their name. And it isn't like Nova doesn't have enough to worry about in stopping the mad plans of Tyrannus.

On an unrelated note, Wolfman inadvertently provides a scene that in hindsight could have served as a warning against rushing this flash in the pan into his own series--though for what it's worth, the book had a run of 25 issues before it folded.

March, 1977

Len Wein returns to have They resurface two months later and at last step out from the sidelines (if not the shadows), conscripting the Absorbing Man to attack the incredible Hulk.

Of course, what Creel plans to do and what actually happens are often two different things.

As we can see, Wein isn't ready to tip his hand on They, who still haven't shown that they're much more than slightly sadistic troublemakers getting their kicks from provoking conflict. Yet the honor of providing substance to They would fall to someone else, as, 2½ years later, Roger Stern decides on behalf of Marvel that it's time for all of us to finally learn:

Ready to make their move to seize the Hulk, They make use of the criminal known as the Goldbug and his obsession with gold--more specifically, his search for the mythical golden city of El Dorado in the Andes, expedited by tricking and trapping the Hulk into power his airship in order to pinpoint its location.

But with his usefulness to them at an end, They arrange on the ship's approach to free the Hulk, who makes short work of the Goldbug and escapes with his captive before the ship explodes. Yet before the Goldbug can meet with the Hulk's vengeance, one of those who reside in El Dorado arrives to conduct the Hulk into the city--at the instructions of those whose name both the Hulk and the Goldbug make note of, in their own way.

At last, however, after much impatience on the Hulk's part, They present themselves to their "guest"--who, unsurprisingly, does not react well to arrogance.

Yet for all his rage, the Hulk doesn't obtain the answers he seeks as to why the Goldbug recognized their name from the acolyte, Tulak, or how They were expecting the Hulk's arrival. As the Hulk moves to destroy them, They skillfully manipulate him into losing his composure when faced with visions of the aftermath of the death of his beloved, Jarella--so much so that he changes back to Bruce Banner, who, at the proper time and place, falls swiftly into their hands.

If some of the people, places, and events here are starting to ring familiar to you--Prince Rey, Lann, a city in South America, a sacred flame--it turns out that Stern has taken Wein's shadowy, nondescript characters and provided them with a backstory that dates back to mid-1966, when the Avengers' search for a missing research scientist led to a hidden civilization--where two factions struggled for control over a source of power which could destroy the entire world.

When the rest of the team arrives to back up Goliath, the threat is dealt with when Hawkeye fires an arrow that triggers technology which ends the menace of the flame, presumably for good.

Stern's retcon also includes the point that the so-called "flame of life" was originally forged by the Deviants to challenge the Celestials upon their return to Earth (a story which Thor is at this point in the middle of).

And so, with Banner now harnessed to technology connected directly to the flame and returning it to its full might by supplementing its power with the gamma radiation within his body, our little triumvirate indulges in a little well-deserved gloating at seeing their plans finally coming to fruition--though Stern's adaptations, though clearly well-plotted, aren't entirely seamless.

Qualifying the plans of They by specifying that "most" of their pawns were used in schemes that would stimulate the power of the flame, Stern adeptly glosses over the fact that his revision cannot account for several of those pawns whose activities were really of no apparent use to They. It's not clear at all, for instance, why They would make the slightest effort to help the Orb obtain paperwork that would help him regain his exhibition show; and while the Earth would rumble a bit from dinosaurs stomping around Manhattan or a falling building courtesy of the Absorbing Man's battle with the Hulk, neither would have much of an effect on the flame, assuming the vibrations of either even reached as far as South America.  (That being the case, those dinosaurs could have been left to do their stomping in the Savage Land.)  I did think the inclusion of Moses Magnum's plot in Japan was a nice touch--though, like the Nova story, there was no mention in that tale of the involvement of They.

But what of Des, the third member of They? Thus far, his own backstory is rather sketchy, having appeared to assist Rey and Lann to restore the flame from the state the Avengers left it in. But even as those two further manipulate Banner into partially changing back to the Hulk in order to further charge the flame, the duplicity of Des is revealed--as is his true, vile form.

Tyrannus's involvement with Nova was thus another attempt to produce sufficient quake magnitude to more quickly build the flame's power, and thereby recover his lost youth. And now, with that goal finally achieved, and his use for They at an end, the full power of the flame is available for him to conquer both El Dorado and, in time, the entire world.

Of course, one impediment to his plans remains:

And what the Hulk hates typically doesn't fare well. In the case of Tyrannus, his foe's destruction of the machinery encasing the sacred flame causes Tyrannus to lose control of the power he's now bonded with--a fate which puts him on a course for death. On a related note, Stern takes a moment to dispel the notion that this incredible power which Tyrannus briefly usurped would have fared any better in the hands of the Deviants.

And so it's sayonara to the story of They at long last--a group that, ironically, was itself only a pawn in a greater scheme.

One of artist Al Milgrom's covers to the They saga.


Big Murr said...

Astounding. I've read most of the issues with "They" pulling the strings...and it did not penetrate my mind in any way. Probably the ultimately bland non-name failed to impress itself on my imagination.

A mystery I never knew existed explained thru to its ending! Well done!

It makes my imagination wander in another direction. I can't help but speculate how many mystery power cabals of villainy are destroyed by other mystery power cabals in "turf wars" with superheroes being totally oblivious?

ZIRGAR said...

Creel did the exact same thing in Incredible Hulk 209, where he's falling from a building at a construction site and he says all he has to do to save himself is turn into the substance of the next thing he touches and it turns out to be glass. Man, that guy NEVER learns.

Comicsfan said...

Murray, your question on villainous cabals going at each other behind the scenes is food for thought, though we may never know (I suppose the whole point after all is to keep the conflicts under wraps). But I'm sure we all appreciate it when such power plays boil over and have their effects felt by others. The turf war between Hammerhead and Doc Ock... A.I.M. trying to take out M.O.D.O.K. and vice versa... Acts of Vengeance... I'm glad Marvel generally has the kind of villains who enjoy an audience. :)

Actually, Zirgar, the scene in the post is from that very same Hulk issue--but you're right in the general sense, since it wasn't the first time Creel has made the mistake of touching a substance that made him vulnerable. Look before you leap, Crusher!

ZIRGAR said...

Oops. I guess I should've looked before I leaped too.

Big Murr said...

One such villain vs villain turf war was offered relatively recently in "Amazing Spider-Man" #676. Spidey wasn't even in that issue (except for the cover). A burgeoning subplot being cooked up by Doctor Octopus came further into the light as Doc took his Sinister Six to rumble with the Intelligencia. When asked by Sandman and Electro, Octopus explained "I can hardly let those buffoons conquer the world this year when I intend to conquer it next year!" (He was also mighty peeved that the gang of villain super-geniuses failed to extend him an invitation to join.)

In his second (I think) ever appearance, Creel touched a glass window while fighting Thor. Even though a quick hammer toss would end things neatly, the Thunder God just couldn't bring himself to slay such a helpless foe. As shown after this Hulk misadventure, Creel would eventually reform from the scattered pieces. If only Thor knew this fact back then, well, the story would have ended abruptly.

Tiboldt said...

The Absorbing Man is probably the only super-powered person who would benefit from an earring. Not anything special like adamantium or vibranium but a basic stainless steel hoop and he'd avoid so many problems.

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