Friday, November 17, 2017

For Better Or Worse--Your Nurse Is On The Job!

While Earth's super-beings enjoy a measure of autonomy and often find themselves in the driver's seat in terms of making decisions for and issuing orders to civilians, there's one profession which even someone who can take to the air or who has the strength of twenty must defer to--the time-honored profession of nursing, where men and women are tasked with caring for the injured and the dying and can brook no interference from even well-meaning family and friends whose abilities allow them to save lives by the score on a routine basis. There are a number of Marvel stories where nurses have taken center stage, for better or worse--and we'll take a look at both their finer moments and their occasional failures, as they butt heads with those with whom they don't happen to see eye-to-eye.




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Double-Death Threat!

While it's true that you can't thumb through your stack of old Iron Man comics without coming across at least a half dozen Iron Man vs. the Mandarin issues, do you still recoil with a start when you come across the issue where the Mandarin once battled his armored nemesis TOPLESS?

Yikes! That probably triggered the evacuation alarm at Stark Industries automatically!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Clothes Make The Sorcerer Supreme

There have been noteworthy reinterpretations of Marvel characters handled by writer Warren Ellis (e.g., Moon Knight, Thor)--efforts which often meet with mixed reactions from readers, but are undeniably thought-provoking nonetheless. Likewise, there has been no dearth of reboots for the character of Doctor Strange, whose powers have been adjusted nearly as often as those of the Scarlet Witch and whose physical appearance has been subject to the whims of both time and sales. It seemed inevitable, then, that both Ellis and Strange would cross paths--as they do in 1995, when Strange was badly in need of a new direction in both his fictional life and his title, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, which had reached its eightieth issue. Along with his skills as a writer, Ellis often brings a healthy dose of the unexpected to his projects--and in his work with artists Mark Buckingham and Kev Sutherland, the '95 reintroduction of Strange surely excels in that.

Ellis's stop on Doctor Strange would be all too brief, almost immediately turning over scripting of his plot to a guest writer, followed by J.M. DeMatteis being assigned as the book's regular writer. But he leaves an imprint on Strange that's both amusing and intriguing--a welcome breath of fresh air following the floundering of the character in previous issues. Strange returns to Earth after 1,000 years fighting in a war at the request of the Vishanti--though only aging a year, with the Vishanti arranging for him to arrive on Earth just four months after he'd left.

Unfortunately, the Vishanti haven't shaved off the ravages of 1,000 years in the trenches--and Strange's homecoming is something of a wake-up call for him, as well as a trying experience for those whose services he requires.

Soon enough, Strange is putting himself in order--and Ellis uses the time to both ease current readers into the changes that the character is undergoing, and to bring new readers up to speed on what this unkempt man has been through and why they're seeing a different person emerge as a result.

Monday, November 13, 2017

This Is A Job For... The USAgent!

A Marvel crossover event launched in late 2000 unfortunately took over sixteen years to catch my eye--even though its story carried considerable implications for galactic peace and was written by Kurt Busiek, who at the time was injecting The Avengers with new life and vigor. The three-issue series, stuffed as it is with a truckload of diverse characters, groups, and aliens, as well as a number of subplots, would showcase Busiek's ability to manage so many variables while dealing in such a host of characters and striving to give each their due rather than simply including them as "window dressing."

But it's one character in particular who stands out in this series, someone whom Busiek gives preferential treatment to and raises his profile substantially--and it's probably the last character you were expecting to take center stage.

Yes, John Walker, the USAgent, a character originally thrust into the spotlight when he was selected as a replacement for Captain America when Cap resigned the role due to new government demands on his activities. Cap would eventually expose the duplicity of the government commission that handed him his walking papers, followed by Walker convincing him to reclaim his shield and uniform--and from there, Walker would eventually join the west coast franchise of the Avengers as well as segueing to its spinoff, Force Works. But aside from his fervent patriotism and his tendency to rub people the wrong way, the Agent didn't enjoy much visibility or attention as a character in his own right--a situation not helped by his adoption of the uniform of "the Captain," the costumed identity Cap operated under while Walker was acting as Captain America.

With the generous exposure in the series' introduction showing him in action, we're of course given ample opportunity to sample the "new" USAgent--but it remains to be seen if Busiek can make this man into a new character that will hold our attention, to say nothing of grooming him to anchor the entire series. In terms of the latter, his journey starts with a summons to Washington by Val Cooper, who chairs the Commission on Superhuman Activities and informs Walker of the Commission's plans for the facility formerly known as the Vault--the high-tech prison designed to incarcerate super-beings, recently destroyed (in a massive breakout facilitated by the U-Foes). Instead of rebuilding, installations of enhanced security wings in existing penitentiaries across the country are set up--followed by the establishment of an oversight team to oversee all aspects of super-powered crime and imprisonment. To lead that team, Cooper already knows a man who's well qualified for the job--but he has reservations.

Cooper has clearly sweetened this deal considerably, giving Walker enormous discretion and latitude in exercising his new authority. It's a position that will play a large part in the Agent's interactions with other high-profile characters in this series.

Which brings us back to the Agent's confrontation of Piledriver*, who isn't at all happy with his brush with the law, but who's headed to a prison cell nonetheless.

*Piledriver, along with the rest of the "Wrecking Crew," had his power reclaimed by Loki, who doesn't seem like the type to relent. What gives?

But as we'll see, the Commission's new initiative on prison arrangements makes for a fitting introduction to this series--because the alien Kree have their own ideas about incarceration, plans which will put our entire world under lock and key.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Heads Will Roll At Gamma Base!

In early 1979, the military/research installation known as Gamma Base began experiencing some internal problems that brought it under the scrutiny of the federal government--problems set in motion by the actions of Dr. Karla Sofen, former associate of the infamous Dr. Faustus who went on to become an operative of the criminal organization known as the Corporation. In order to steal key components of a gamma-powered device for her employer, Sofen joined Leonard Samson at the base as a fellow psychiatrist in order to move about the base covertly and gain greater access to the restricted area where the components were stored. What no one suspects is that Sofen has also become the new Moonstone.

Other guests at Gamma Base at that time were the incredible Hulk, under the care and treatment of Samson, and Jim Wilson, the Hulk's friend. It was the Hulk who accidentally encountered Sofen (as Moonstone) once she'd made her heist--but, in order to escape without incident, Sofen managed through subterfuge to enrage the Hulk to the point of paranoia, upsetting Samson's therapy using both her powers and her skill as a psychiatrist. But she has pushed the Hulk too far--and she now battles for her life while waiting to take advantage of any opportunity to escape.

Meanwhile, the base's C.O., Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross, who has begun showing symptoms of stress due mostly to his inability to deal with the Hulk, prepares to move against the monster on his own (while hopefully taking the heat off of Moonstone). But Moonstone, startled by Ross's arrival, momentarily lets her concentration lapse and inadvertently reveals her true identity--yet in doing so, discovers the perfect opportunity to turn the situation to her advantage.

It almost seems appropriate for only the Hulk to be the one to see right through Sofen's act and realize that she's to blame for the chaos that has been attributed to his own rage. Regardless, the damage to Ross is done--and the icing on the cake will be Samson himself, who has seen the Hulk threaten Sofen earlier and, noting Ross's condition, concludes that the Hulk is likely beyond redemption.

As a result, the Hulk leaves Gamma Base in shambles, only this time that description applies more to the emotional and administrative upheaval left in the wake of the Hulk's stormy departure. All things considered, the actual physical damage to the facility is minor; yet of concern to Washington is the fact that Gamma Base's operative status has gone south, thanks to one debacle after another. And now, with the escape of the Hulk, accountability has become the order of the day--and arriving to demand it are Senators Hawk and Stivak from Washington, with the former being the more unhappy of the pair.

Welcome to administrative hell, Dr. Samson. By the way, you might have thought to dress to greet the Senator as if you're not part of a circus.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

When Companies Clash!

Between the late '90s and the early 2000s, there were two collaborations between Marvel Comics and DC Comics which featured mash-ups of their respective stables of comics stars: the 2003 JLA★Avengers, which isolated the confrontation between the two super-teams, and the 1996 Marvel Comics versus DC that cast a wider net and included a more broad representation of each company's characters. And like the contests themselves, there are probably two schools of thought as to which one proved to be superior.

Each series has a catalyst that brings the two "worlds" together in conflict; each has a decent amount of interaction between the characters of each version of Earth; each comprises four issues, split evenly between each company in terms of publication and the order of the title wording; and, needless to say, each has its share of battles between characters whose meetings were presumably chosen to appeal to readers. There's also a nice sense of continuity in that the creative teams of each series are stable throughout. The Marvel-DC series is written by Peter David and Ron Marz, with pencils by Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini and inks handled by Josef Rubinstein and Paul Neary--while the Avengers★JLA books are scripted by Kurt Busiek with art by George Perez.

There are also some notable differences between the two. The earlier series isn't limited to the members of two specific teams (though with the number of members both teams have swelling their ranks, readers of the later series weren't likely to feel short-changed); in addition, the '96 series features meetings between villains as well as heroes, which is certainly an extra draw. There is also a noticeable dissimilarity in the size of the interior panels between each, with neither really finding a happy medium. The Jurgens/Castellini work is oversized to the extreme, which not only gives the impression of less story for your $3.95 $4.00 but also necessitates shortening each battle's duration, given the number of characters the series must deal in. Perez's much smaller panels, on the other hand, appear to pack so much action into each issue that it almost becomes a chore to sift through it all and make sense of everything going on.

One last observation has to do with the timing of the '96 event, which unfortunately catches Marvel Comics at the lowest point in its thirty-year history--its creative talent a fraction of what it once was, its financial position precarious, its staff undergoing sweeping layoffs, the production of its books about to be farmed out to other studios, and the Onslaught event decimating its lineup of major titles. In a way, the DC versus Marvel Comics series offers a snapshot of the point where Marvel effectively jumps off a cliff, leaving its "old guard" in the dust for once and for all. The circumstances cast something of a pall over the issues, though I'd be curious to hear if the DC reader was experiencing a similar reaction.

But let's take a brief look at some of the key scenes from each, starting with the '96 series. Thanks to Jurgens and the young mutant, Jubilee, we have an idea of who meets who in battle, as well as the stakes involved--all scribbled from Jubilee's own unique perspective.

Monday, November 6, 2017

God Loves... Man Kills!

The 1982 graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, an often violent story featuring a plot to wipe out the mutant population, spends a great deal of its time building momentum towards that goal while efficiently and methodically enabling its antagonists to overcome any obstacles that might stand in their way--among them, the X-Men. It's a tried and true Chris Claremont approach that has served the writer well in a number of tense X-Men stories where the team struggles against a determined and resourceful foe or organization--only this time it would be the X-Men themselves who unwittingly arm their opponents with the means to achieve their ends.

The foe that seeks out and attempts to destroy mutantkind is a religious zealot named Rev. William Stryker, a dogmatic adversary who has an unswerving belief in the abomination that mutants represent to God and who often quotes scripture to justify his actions, brooking no dissent. Carrying out his killings are the Purifiers, an armored contingent of men and women who also stalk the victim(s) and gather intel that will facilitate the hit--under the supervision of a woman named Anne, a merciless and detached killer whose loyalty to Stryker is absolute and who carries out her assignments with ruthless precision and dedication. The Purifiers and Anne are on the same page, in terms of their devotion to and firm belief in the cause--making them a deadly force to be reckoned with, and certainly feared, with the Purifiers following Anne's instructions to the letter. At her signal, death is dispensed, with no hesitation and no remorse.

Anne will remind you of a number of strong, no-nonsense female killers that Claremont has created over the years who had no qualms about ending their target's life and moving on--a character trait demonstrated vividly in the opening pages of this story, where two innocent children are running for their lives. It's a race they're unfortunately destined to lose.

Friday, November 3, 2017

"A Terrible Thing To Waste..."

One of the more unusual Hulk stories to see print took place in 1986, during the period of time when Bruce Banner's mind was so deeply suppressed within the green goliath that the Hulk truly became a creature of pure rage--a monster in every sense of the word, who lashed out unpredictably and tore through lives and communities without forethought or hesitation. Originally scheduled for the Hulk's own book but rejected by Editor Denny O'Neil, the story found its way a few months later to Marvel Fanfare, Al Milgrom's showcase for stories that were shelved or otherwise produced with a more unusual format or plot in mind. In this particular tale, it was the story's format which appeared to be the sticking point, with writer/artist John Byrne submitting to O'Neil twenty-two full-sized pages that made up the entirety of the issue.

It's admirable work from Byrne, with both story and art measuring up to his usual fare produced during the early- to mid-'80s. Flipping through the issue, there appears to be no discernible reason for O'Neil's objection(s), which could have been based on any number of things. If I were to take a guess, he might have primarily been reluctant to put on the shelves an issue of Incredible Hulk that sold the buyer short on story, as sparse as it is on dialog, action, or narrative. That's a fair point; the issue isn't being sold on "Free Comic Book Day," after all--and "flipping through" this story is probably an accurate description of how it will be read by the buyer, just as they would with any issue they pick up on FCBD. Only here, the reader would be plunking down the usual 75¢ in change and likely expecting a little more Hulk story than 22 splash pages.

On the other hand, it depends on how you'd define "story," and whether that story both satisfies and holds your attention from beginning to end, however long it takes for the clock to run out. O'Neil arguably didn't really have the luxury of thinking in those terms--and of course your own mileage may vary. But while seemingly brief, Byrne appears to satisfy those conditions, while including a twist to the story you don't see coming. At any rate, with its subsequent appearance in Marvel Fanfare, it's fair to assume that whatever objections were raised concerning the format of this story apparently didn't extend beyond O'Neil's office. It also bears noting that, by picking up the story in MF, readers were paying twice the cover price that they would have shelled out had the story been published in Incredible Hulk.

The story begins in the southwest, where we'd normally find the Hulk and/or his usual cast of characters. But who we find on page one (the only page cropped here, lacking only the story's title (which heads this post)) is neither--rather, an individual who, in a way, bids patience of the reader. It isn't difficult to hazard a guess as to what Byrne's narrative implies is on the way.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

My Orders Are: Destroy!

OR: "Your Orders Are What I Say They Are, Clown!"

With his introduction in mid-1967 that featured him squaring off against the world's greatest super-team, the sinister Sentry heralded into comics the alien race known as the Kree, whose aggression and goals of conquest led to conflicts with Captain Marvel, the Avengers, and the uncanny Inhumans, as well as the Shi'ar and certainly the Skrulls. Interestingly, the Fantastic Four were left by the wayside as the Kree began to widen their exposure in Marvel stories--perhaps mostly due to the fact that, six months after the FF's defeat of both the Sentry and Ronan the Accuser, the Kree would be diverted to facilitate the appearance of a brand new Marvel character.

Premiering in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes, Captain Mar-vell of the Kree had been sent to Earth as part of a task force to investigate the destruction of their Sentry as well as Ronan's defeat and invoke appropriate countermeasures to make it clear to Earth that the Kree were not to be defied. As we can see by the cover of the succeeding story, reports of the Sentry's demise were obviously premature, with Marvel apparently using the "bump" from the android's FF appearance to promote interest in the budding "Captain Marvel" character.

As for Mar-vell, at this point in time he's still very much the dutiful Kree soldier, following his orders to the letter and prepared to carry out whatever retaliation his superiors deem fit for the planet.

The underlying conflict of Mar-vell's mission, however, is not so much his interaction with humans and his experiences in infiltrating their installations, but rather his prickly relationship with his c.o., Colonel Yon-Rogg, who is intensely jealous of Mar-vell's romantic relationship with their crew's medic, Una, and undermines Mar-vell at every opportunity in order to ensure that he'll meet his death on Earth. It's a questionable approach to the book, with the Kree threat being limited to Yon-Rogg's petty behavior towards Mar-vell while the Kree race itself is kept at arm's length across the galaxy, with only brief communiques touching base with them and vice versa.

Whether it was wise to remove the Kree from Fantastic Four just as they were building steam and instead using them exclusively in the developing story of Mar-vell is debatable, given how the Kree practically became bit players as Mar-vell was given one makeover after another in an effort to sustain readership. Through it all, however, and in stories to come, the Sentry would come to represent the Kree ambition and arrogance--as well as their intractable will.

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