Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Many Operatives of Mister Kline!

 

From late 1971 to early 1972, writer Gerry Conway introduced the nefarious Mister Kline, a character who for reasons unknown sought to upend the lives of Matt Murdock, Tony Stark, and Franklin Nelson, and whose hidden agenda would by extension draw in Daredevil and Iron Man. It's hard to say whether Kline's primary focus on Murdock and Stark had anything to do with Marvel's soon-to-be-launched large format books that would offer an increase in story length for selected titles at a cost of 25¢, given that both Invincible Iron Man and Daredevil were reportedly to be merged into a single book; otherwise, Murdock and Stark would seem to be worlds apart as far as gaining the interest of a figure in shadows who would go to any lengths to cause them trouble, to say nothing of the time and effort taken to conscript others to do that figure's dirty work.

And speaking of which, since Kline himself is due for a PPC post of his own, let's spend our time here running down the list of those whom he enlisted to further his plans--some willingly, some not so much, but all in one way or another complicating the lives of our heroes.

Which calls for a not too complicated


Marvel Trivia Question



Which characters were compelled to serve the enigma named... Mister Kline?

Monday, September 26, 2022

Attack Of The Nega-Man!

 

Fantastic Four #108 is a story spawned from loose ends--specifically, a number of pages of unfinished art by Jack Kirby meant for issue #102, but shelved for a time due to Kirby's resignation from Marvel Comics in 1970 and Stan Lee reportedly having issues with the story as submitted.


Kirby's story has Reed and Sue hosting an archaeologist who has unearthed a statue of Janus, the Roman god of transitions and dualities--which by coincidence coincides with the appearance of a super-powered threat named Janus, who begins raids on banks for cash and who bullies his physically afflicted twin brother into covering for him with the promise of using his new power to mend his crippled legs.

Fast-forward to March of 1971, where Lee has reshaped Kirby's premise and finally given this story legs with the help of artists John Buscema and John Romita to supplement Kirby's original work, while bringing the character of Janus new depth as a former college classmate of Reed's whose experiments with "nega-power" produced an evil side of himself which sought to bring New York City under his control.

Yet the first we learn of Janus is when the character approaches Reed in present-day--a man who has gone on to use the nega-power to mend his legs but who now seeks the wellspring of negative power to be found in the Negative Zone. That meeting takes a violent turn when Janus sees that Reed has no intention of helping him--and so Reed gathers his team to recount the story of Janus in flashback form (more for our benefit than theirs, since the FF vividly recall those events), with the addendum that Janus has breached the entry to the Negative Zone and is on the brink of achieving ultimate power.


Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Cover That Failed!

 

Following a launch in early 1972 that saw its first four issues apparently competing with Marvel's Greatest Comics as a reprint title for older Fantastic Four tales, Marvel Triple Action then shifted its focus to offering reprints of The Avengers--its covers for the most part mimicking MGC in retaining the original cover art of a story, interspersed with new covers drawn by contemporary artists of the '70s. Arguably, there may have been no Avengers cover more in need of a makeover* than that of the December 1966 issue, rendered by artist Don Heck and pictured here with Rich Buckler's interpretation of its events nine years later.


*Though I'd put the cover to issue #38 in the running.

As we can see, there are two schools of thought as to where the Avengers' fight with the Living Laser comes to a head. On the right, we see a deadly struggle taking place on a bridge in New York City--while on the left, our heroes are on the defensive with the Laser in the Central American country of Costa Verde (a locale which may sound familiar to you from another '70s story). Both covers retain the captions featured on the original--the title referring to Goliath sabotaging the Laser's powerful laser cannon, while Goliath's big change has him regaining his size-changing powers after becoming trapped at ten feet not long after rejoining the team.

While both covers have their peculiarities, it's the original which seems most in need of improvement. Even those behind the scenes in production seemed to recognize that, with what appears to be a last-minute substitution of the Captain America figure with one drawn by Jack Kirby, taken from an issue of Tales Of Suspense published in the same month:


As for the other figures, little thought has been given to what everyone is supposed to be doing (with the exception of the Laser's aggression). Even the Kirby figure's positioning is poorly chosen, having been dislodged (presumably by the Laser) from the cliff, with the Laser either opening fire on Cap's shield or Cap blocking the blast, both superfluous at this point. In the Laser's case, he's already sent Cap plummeting--why continue to fire at his target, much less at the wrong angle? And why should Cap worry about blocking a blast that would miss him?

And speaking of angles, who or what is Hawkeye aiming at? This marksman isn't going to hit the Laser at the angle he's positioned--maybe goons unseen off to the left? That leaves Goliath, who makes a great target for the Laser with his back turned to him; but at the moment, we can't be sure whether he's trying to save Cap, or if he's the one who threw Cap off the ledge in the first place.

On the MTA cover, Buckler's depiction is actually representative of the events taking place in the prior issue's story. But while the activities of the Laser and the Avengers are in the vicinity of the bridge, our motorists are only in the line of fire insofar as an attack by the Laser from miles away, and Buckler taking just a tad of artistic license with presenting a battle scene (and a bridge disaster) that never occurred.



Obviously Buckler is making better use of Cap's shield--but since we've already spent a good deal of time piling on and detracting from the merits of each of these covers, this may not be the time to mention the fact that Cap really has no shield to use at this point, given that his one-of-a-kind, indestructible shield was earlier destroyed by the Laser. (Buck up, Cap! Is that why you're jumping off a cliff?)


Monday, September 19, 2022

To Die Anew!

 

At the end of its run in the fall of 1998, X-Factor lost its leader, Alex Summers (aka Havok, the brother of the X-Man Cyclops), presumed dead from an explosion of the airborne ship he had boarded in an attempt to stabilize its systems. Yet the following month, a new series began that took advantage of the ruptured craft having space-time properties to merge Alex's essence with the body of his counterpart in an alternate reality, a man who had just met his own death at the hands of the Sentinels--and subsequently, Alex fell in with the Havok-led group of mutants named The Six, whose history and whose world were dramatically different from his own.

The first issue of the new series has already received its due in the PPC--yet now we jump ahead over 2½ years to its final issue, the one story missing from my collection of Mutant X which I'm now going to take a look at for the first time. Writer Howard Mackie has helmed this series from beginning to end--and we arrive at a time of crisis for this world, for its heroes, and certainly for Alex Summers, who doesn't appear free from the capricious whims of whatever fate brought him to an Earth for which he alone holds the key to its survival.


As far as world-ending threats go, who or what could be responsible for such a doomsday scenario on a global scale? How about this universe's version of the Beyonder--who has broken free of his imprisonment at the Earth's core thanks to a battle with a mutated version of Captain America, and who takes a crash course in getting up to speed with current events before setting his sights on one person in particular. [Images taken from the third and final Mutant X Annual.]



Thursday, September 15, 2022

A New Life, A New World--The Coming of Mutant X!

 

I couldn't tell you exactly why this is, but, in the spirit of full disclosure, I collected and read nearly the entire run of Mutant X fresh from the comics rack during its nearly 2½ years of publication, an admission that seems puzzling to me today considering that I can make the same claim about a number of Marvel titles sold during the years 1998-2001. I can state for a fact, however, that my curiosity got the better of me where Mutant X was concerned, given its focus on Havok, the leader of X-Factor who was killed off in the closing pages of that title's final issue, which served to pave the way to the new Mutant X series.

The circumstances involved Havok's attempt to stop Devlin Greystone, a member of X-Factor who constructs a space-time distortion vehicle in order to return "home" (i.e., the same future as Bishop hails from)--yet it turns out Havok has boarded a highly volatile aircraft that doesn't react well to his attempt to disarm it, seemingly killing both men.



I can't say that Greystone thinks much of Mr. Summers' promises right now (assuming the man survived to mull it over). As for Havok, he's subsequently shunted to the new book, where we'll find there are a lot of new things and people to concern him, as a house ad for the series that appears in the X-Factor issue teases:


That book's letters pages had otherwise kept coy about its plans--even up to this point, where they break the news that anyone with X-Factor subscriptions will see them transferred to X-Men. The following month, Mutant X is launched--bringing along Howard Mackie, who had scripted the last thirty-five issues of X-Factor and who would steer the course of Mutant X for the duration.


Monday, September 12, 2022

Skrull Special Ops: The Attack of the Prime Ten!

 

Written by Doug Moench, the story for the 1980 Fantastic Four Annual would have taken place sometime during the eleven-issue run of Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz on the main title.  Like Sienkiewicz, the annual's artist, George Pérez, would restrict his work to breakdowns for the issue's finishers (in this case, Chic Stone, Jon D'Agostino and Mike Esposito), which gives us some idea of the time-sensitive nature of the creative process on Fantastic Four during this period; indeed, other pencillers on the book such as Keith Pollard, John and Sal Buscema, and Pérez himself (around the fall of '77 until his departure) often did the same. Those who minded the store on inks, taking the layouts they'd been given and subsequently bringing an issue's story to life, weren't responsible for setting the direction or pacing of that story, but for much of Marvel's Bronze Age they contributed a great deal every month to finish the job the layout artist began and meet those deadlines--and, of course, the benefit to the pencil work that greets our eyes is obvious.

Pérez returns to our foursome here after turning in full pencils for the prior year's annual (collaborating with writer Marv Wolfman), the two annuals comprising his final work with the characters following his brief return to The Avengers earlier in the year and, from there, transitioning to DC Comics. As for the annual's contents, which include a backup feature that details the return of Dr. Doom from the fate he met in the FF's 200th anniversary issue, the page count for this annual's FF story tops out at twenty-four--and so the threat the FF and guest-star Captain Marvel face from a "Prime" assault of ten Skrulls may come off as being wrapped up fairly quickly for the primary story of an annual.

Its premise: Reed Richards invents a wireless "gateway" transmitter of energy across virtually any distance which can send power to receiving cells placed in (for example) vehicles, negating the need for batteries. But unknown to Reed, his research parallels the work of Skrull scientists seeking to create a matter transmitter to use as a weapon against their enemies, the Kree--something that the Skrulls learn when Reed's device forms an accidental link between both gateway terminals. The Skrulls come to realize that Reed's successful gateway can be adapted for their use--and so it isn't long before we find a Skrull agent, after disguising himself to get the drop on Reed's three partners, confronting Reed and delivering his demands.



Uh-oh. Who's going to blink first?

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Mightiest Mortal! The Caped Crusader!

 

I believe it may have been John Byrne who once remarked that the difference between DC Comics and Marvel Comics was that DC had the better characters, but Marvel had the better stories, going on to add that Marvel's approach to a story was better suited to do more with DC characters. The fact that writers and artists have at times left one company and gone to work for the other (as well as indulging in do-si-dos in that respect) may muddy those waters a bit--but it occurred to me that you can put that assessment to the test when the companies agree to feature their characters in joint stories, either as foes or dealing with a shared threat or crisis. One such gem could be found as early as 1981, as two characters as dissimilar as they come face each other for the first time.


This story takes place in the final issue of the DC Special Series* books, written by Len Wein (who had long since moved on from his stint on Incredible Hulk) and with art by José Luis Garcia-López and Dick Giordano. Having worked my way backward with these kinds of inter-company team-up issues, it was interesting to see that in earlier years the DC and Marvel characters were of the same world and had simply never crossed paths with each other. In this case, Bruce Banner has come to Gotham City and found employment (under forged credentials) doing odd jobs in a Wayne Research lab where we find a team of scientists working on the Gamma Gun, a device which Banner feels could be the key to his salvation for obvious reasons. Enter the Joker, who arrives to steal it for none other than the Shaper of Worlds, whom the pasty-faced criminal has struck an agreement with; but an altercation with the Joker's men triggers a transformation that has them dealing instead with a very angry man-monster.


Monday, September 5, 2022

The Annuals of '83!

 

What do these seven Marvel Annuals appear to have in common?


For one thing, they were all published in 1983; but more to the point, it looks like they're all depending on their lead character(s) to sell the book on the stand, in a solitary pose with nothing and no one else pictured that might help in that regard--a curious decision on (presumably) Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter's part that banks on the titles' readers and nonreaders alike to make a purchase without having an idea of what the story is about or what antagonists are involved. We do see, however, that three of the annuals make exceptions in that regard, if minimally:

  • The background of the Captain America annual, for instance, cube-shaped to accompany the caption that tells us of the Cosmic Cube's involvement (as well as its UPC symbol appropriated to indicate who else is in the issue);
  • Wording on the Iron Man annual indicating that the Eternals are featured, while we can make out in the collection of facial outlines that their foes, the Deviants, are also involved;
  • Thor's caption is vague but gives off a Tales Of Asgard vibe; and
  • The Marvel Team-Up issue gets around the problem by virtue of the fact that it is a team-up book and can feature any and all characters who are joining forces with Spider-Man.

It's the only year that I recall seeing this sort of thing done across the board in this way, as opposed to isolated instances (e.g., the '81 Cap and the '94 Iron Man annuals). Interestingly, there were some notable absences of annuals that year, including The Avengers and X-Men, along with Daredevil (no surprise there, having lapsed from 1977-88) as well as Marvel Two-In-One, which gets a pass since the series came to an end in June of that year.*

*I've been corrected on the Avengers and X-Men annuals--see the info from alert reader David P. in the comments section!

And so in terms of what's left, how did these particular annuals do with you at the store? Were you tempted to browse the issue based on its star power, or even pay your buck and take it home on faith? Or did you decide it was better to just wait a few decades and let the PPC size them up for you? No problem, friend, we've got your back.


Thursday, September 1, 2022

IT Lives!

 

It!, the 1973-74 short-lived feature by Tony Isabella from Astonishing Tales, wasn't exactly the first to break ground in a Marvel story as a character named by that particular pronoun:



But while characters with pronouns for names have met with some success over the years, it wasn't long before the '70s It! found its masthead joined by the more descriptive wording, "the Living Colossus." And that's understandable, since you'd presumably want your cover character to deliver more punch on the sales stand with wording that conveyed more than the shock value of the unknown.

For our purposes, however, and to avoid confusion in just about every sentence constructed with the word "it," we'll refer to this 100-foot-tall creature by the more striking noun that was applied to it with its first appearance in 1961, as we examine just how much mileage it's unexpectedly received as a character whose purpose was to be either a gigantic threat or, oddly enough, a literally larger than life hero.


Monday, August 29, 2022

The Human Tantrum

 

Well, there's no sugar-coating this post: I have such mixed feelings about Fantastic Four #99 from mid-1970. It's not one of my favorite issues of the title, by far:  The premise of the story is unbelievable (no, I'll just come out and say it, the premise is unacceptable)... the Human Torch's disappointing, juvenile behavior, charitably spun by Reed Richards as being "sick at heart," virtually throws out 98 issues of growth and maturity for the character (leading to the harsh wording of this post's title)... and there is no way anyone with a shred of rationale can buy into the no one gave anyone the chance to explain justification for things getting out of hand. Yet, with all of that said, I've tried with some difficulty over time to rationalize the events and direction of this story in my head and provide it with some sense of stability overall. (Apparently, I haven't been all that successful.)

The issue also has the dubious distinction of being published shortly before artist Jack Kirby would depart Marvel Comics for reportedly a more conducive work environment--and while you may get a sense that the frayed relationship between Kirby and writer Stan Lee may have played into the story's shaky foundation, it nevertheless reads as business as usual if... if... you can overlook some of its failings. Thanks to the "Marvel method" still being in play, we can take a fair guess as to how the story took shape: Lee provides the bare bones plot (in a nutshell, Johnny Storm is upset at his girlfriend Crystal being ordered back to the Inhumans' Great Refuge and sets out in anger to confront the royal family and retrieve her), and Kirby flushes out and draws the complete story based on his own interpretation, a formula which had worked splendidly for the most part for their nearly 9-year collaboration on the title.

Diving in, then, let's look at the tense meeting that separated Crystal from Johnny which took place four issues earlier, and see how easy it's been made for Johnny to assume the worst.



So much is said... but very little if anything has been disclosed as to why Crystal is agreeing to accompany Medusa back to the Great Refuge, or why she's needed there, though she's obviously aware of what her decision will do to Johnny. Unfortunately, the two of them keeping mum leaves Johnny both upset and anguished because he's under the impression that Crystal is leaving for good. Now wouldn't this be the time for either Crystal or Medusa to elaborate on what's going on, and assuage any worries on Johnny's part as to just why Crystal must leave?

But Crystal fudges when giving her reasons, full of regret but supplying nothing in the way of information--and Medusa, equally unforthcoming, flatly states that "There is no more that may be said," which from Johnny's point of view must sound preposterous. To add insult to injury, the true reason for Crystal's departure isn't shrouded in secrecy, not in the least; and if we skip ahead and disclose that reason now, this scene could see everything cleared up with just a simple conversation between the three of them, leaving everyone at ease and no consternation whatsoever:

J: "Crystal, why are you leaving? This... this isn't for good, is it??"
C: "Oh Johnny, of course not! You see, Black Bolt was stricken during a radiation experiment, and my family needs me to attend to him by transmitting micro-shock waves to keep his heart beating, until Gorgon can return with a vial of serum that will restore his strength."
M: "That is precisely the situation, Johnny Storm. Crystal's powers are specifically suited to this task."
J: "I understand. I'll let Reed and the others know.  Please give our best to Black Bolt--we're all pulling for him." (gives Crystal a kiss on the cheek, a smile, and a "Hurry back, and let me know if you need me" to send her on her way)

(No idea where Gorgon could possibly be returning from--an intra-Refuge apothecary deep in the caverns of the Alpha Primitives? A pharmacy franchise doing business in the middle of the Himalayas?)

So why keep the situation with Black Bolt under wraps? Why give Johnny the impression that the Inhumans have decided that Crystal should return to the Great Refuge permanently, and "no more may be said"? You know why--so we could all fork over 15¢ for this "epic issue" to see the Torch go after Crystal and lash out at the rest of the Inhumans in his "wild" rage. Flame on!


Black Bolt looks pretty spry here for someone in critical condition, eh?