Monday, November 23, 2020

When Come The Slavers of Golden Star!

 

OR: "Our Next God Up For Bid..."

In mid-1973, we found the Mighty Thor comic about to wrap up an eight-month stretch of issues that saw the Thunder God and his fellow Asgardians--the Warriors Three, the lady Sif, Hildegarde, and Balder the Brave--exiled on Earth by Odin, and joined by Tana Nile and Silas Grant, two individuals from their conflict with Ego-Prime and now marooned on Earth. To complicate matters for the Earth-bound Asgardians, Sif, in exchange for saving Thor's life in a battle against Loki, would be compelled to serve Karnilla, the Norn Queen, in her quest to locate the now-missing Balder*; and as for Balder himself, he later turns up in a shocking state, apparently having been to Asgard despite Odin's edict and returned with his mind shattered by whatever he endured there.



*Presumably Sif was conscripted by Karnilla because of her power to travel by bypassing space and time--otherwise, Sif's ability to locate missing persons would be on par with any other Asgardian's, and certainly wouldn't begin to approach Karnilla's own mystic resources.

And so we've come to where writer Gerry Conway would pivot sharply to a new and wholly different story arc, beginning a nine-issue series of Asgardian adventures in outer space that kicks off with all of Asgard's warriors being captured by aliens and sold on the auction block!


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Part Two of Jack Kirby's Supplemental Covers, Circa 1976-1977

 

Having seen a few of Jack Kirby's supplemental covers for Marvel books, drawn during his own "supplemental" stay at the company during the years 1976-77, let's round out that post by taking the opportunity to "cover" a little more ground and moving on to some of the other titles which received Mr. Kirby's attention under their mastheads.

As was the case before, the books we'll see here might be surprising not only in terms of those titles that Kirby took an interest in, but also those that he opted not to contribute to (all of which is assuming these were Mr. Kirby's choices to make, rather than assignments from whoever was handling production matters). Frankly, with his workload as both writer and scripter of those books he produced on a monthly basis, the fact that Kirby managed to make room for the number of additional covers he turned in is something of a surprise in itself, to say nothing of not having lost his touch at making practically each of these cover images salesworthy as far as being able to stand out on the rack and entice the comics browser with the promise of adventure within. How regrettable that Marvel and Kirby were not able to work out a mutually beneficial way to coexist, though that's not to imply the dispute between them was one-sided. As we've seen in source material such as Marvel Comics The Untold Story, The Comics Journal, Wizard, and other forums that offered an outlet for frank opinion, the business side of the comics industry is at times an eye-opener for readers whose exposure to that industry is limited to the consumption of the wondrous, fantasy-based stories produced therefrom.

With each grouping of covers featured here, I'll again be including some comments and observations that came to mind (and of course looking forward to reading your own).

Let's begin with some of Kirby's lesser-known work in this area:


Monday, November 16, 2020

Return to Delta Vega!

 

With the PPC having done a write-up over seven years ago of the early voyages of the starship Enterprise and her crew as adapted by Marvel Comics, it's high time we followed up with Marvel's treatment of that ship's second captain and crew, in a crossover tale which featured some very unexpected guest-stars--the uncanny X-Men!


Scripted by Scott Lobdell with art by Marc Silvestri (et al., which is putting it mildly), 1996's Star Trek/X-Men throws together the many characters of both mediums in order to solve their mutual problem: how to seal a psionic rift in space, while also dealing with the threat of Gary Mitchell whose form and power have been usurped by the mutant known as Proteus. Throw in the Shi'ar, and you've got yourself a party.




Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Day Of The Godslayer!"

 

The Avengers are in crisis mode! As was the case with Graviton, the Avengers again face a single individual who possesses enough power to swing a virtual scythe through their ranks and easily thwart their best efforts to take him down. Today, that individual turns out to be Count Nefaria, who in the past has employed the use of super-powered underlings to further his criminal agenda, but has now used technology to siphon the powers of the Living Laser, Whirlwind, and Power Man for himself while also increasing the strength of those powers a hundredfold. That translates, respectively, to being able to deploy massively powerful laser beams, speed which would make Quicksilver seem to be moving like molasses, and strength which allows him to topple skyscrapers with little more than a shrug. In short, the Avengers face the fight of their lives against Nefaria.

Already, in several engagements, Nefaria has defeated the Avengers decisively while emerging none the worse for wear; yet during a skirmish with the Whizzer, Nefaria was made aware of his own mortality, which has motivated him to seek out and face the thunder god, Thor, in order to force him to surrender his mystic hammer which Nefaria believes is the source of Thor's immortality. And as far as Nefaria is concerned, whether that surrender comes willingly or as a result of Thor's death is of little consequence.

For their part, the Avengers made it clear that they would not cooperate with their foe in summoning Thor to the scene, and battled on to yet another defeat. But in the midst of the carnage suddenly comes a sweeping, deadly barrage of lightning bolts which blanket Nefaria and visibly unnerve him--heralding the arrival, and the cry of vengeance, of the one Avenger who yet stands in defiance of him.

Monday, November 9, 2020

It's The Return Of The Lethal Legion! (it says here)

 
October of 1977 saw the Avengers sandwiched between two high points in writer Jim Shooter's handling of the team: the return of Ultron, who schemed (with the unwitting assistance of, of all people, Ant-Man) to use the life force of Janet Van Dyne to animate a robot bride for himself... and a life-or-death battle with Korvac, an alien from the future who sought to remake our reality, a struggle which nearly wiped out the entire team (along with Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and the Guardians of the Galaxy). Compared to those challenges, seeing the Avengers go up against losers like the refurbished Lethal Legion may not seem like much of a page-turner at first glance--but you may be surprised.

Get a good look at Whirlwind's exclamation on that cover--in this entire story, this trio will only be referred to as "the Lethal Legion" through narrative, and sparingly at that.  (And what's Whirlwind going on about, anyway? Your old group was the Masters of Evil, bub!)


As long as we're stretching the concept of another Lethal Legion being back in business, there's the matter of a new ringleader to take the Grim Reaper's place--a classic villain who has hit the skids since taking part in an abortive scheme that cost the life of an X-Man, but now seeks to remedy his standing by once again employing underlings to do his bidding.  Only this time, he'll be making use of them far more extensively than they can know.



Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Town Besieged--An Aunt Revealed!

 

Eight issues into writer/artist John Byrne's distinguished run on Fantastic Four, early 1982's off-the-radar "Wendy's Friends" could be described as a middle-of-the-road tale, one of a number of such stories that Byrne would craft for the team which moved events forward for them but otherwise had nothing sensational to offer beyond what you'd ordinarily find the FF dealing with on an ordinary day when no current or imminent threat was preoccupying their time. (Though "ordinary" is certainly subjective when it involves the Fantastic Four.) That description is by no means a disparagement, as Byrne's writing generally reflects patience combined with an effort to establish characterization--and here you'll find the threat du jour folded into that, rather than the other way around, which can often be an interesting change of pace.

And so the FF not only encounter in this issue a mysterious danger that neither they nor its victims can comprehend, but also elements of their past and present--particularly in relation to Ben Grimm, the Thing, who has recently been dealt a setback in regard to an attempt by Reed Richards to return him to his human form. But Ben is also closely linked to the "unexpected guest-star" who is heralded on the issue's dramatic cover--though from the look of things, the FF will soon have other pressing matters on their plate.

 

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Perplexing Pivoting of Thunderbolts and Black Panther

 

In early 2003, when my interest in comics collecting was beginning to wane, there were two series which were also coincidentally drawing to a close, yet titles that I'd enjoyed investing time in--Thunderbolts (which a friend had recommended to me--thanks, Jai!), and Black Panther, helmed by writer Christopher Priest (as simply "Priest" in the credits) who took the series all the way to the finish line in an impressive five-year run. Thunderbolts, running a year longer, was begun by Kurt Busiek, though Fabian Nicieza would pick it up with issue #34 and bring it to with arm's reach of the point of its hiatus*--that is, in terms of the Thunderbolts characters that Nicieza had scripted.

*For our purposes, we need only focus on the title's issues numbering 1-81. Like other books at this time, Thunderbolts had to navigate its own "disassembling" and consequently ended up with a fragmented run in terms of its issue numbering. Following issue #81 in September of 2003, the series picks up again with #82 in January of 2005 for an 18-issue stretch, though renumbered as issues 1-18 and "ending" in April of 2006--at which point the numbering shifts again with the next month's issue (#100, May 2006) and continuing on.

And it's at that point that Thunderbolts took a detour into the bizarre.

Each of these series would for all intents and purposes come to a screeching halt in terms of the book and character(s) which the reader might have been expecting to find after tendering $2.25-$2.50. The latter price applied to the Black Panther mag, though you'd think T'Challa could do without a 25¢ markup; think of that quarter going toward an extra page that provided a heads-up as to what you'd find in the book's next issue, if woefully short on details.


What we can at least infer from these endorsements is that Priest would continue as the book's writer, albeit with a different art team--and that whatever material that would be coming our way will be part of a story arc, which Priest admittedly handles quite well. As for whether Priest will be writing the character you know as the Black Panther--well, after a glance at the issue's cover and title page, you tell me.


Not enough here for you to make up your mind? Fair enough--how about a couple of more covers? Most of them will look the same, with variations, but essentially bringing you the BLAM BLAM BLAM Black Panther.


As for Thunderbolts, which didn't give an inkling of its next issue's content or direction, we find that its story format has been radically altered, its masthead virtually hijacked, and, wait for it... NO THUNDERBOLTS.


To make things even more perplexing, Marvel's digital copy of this first issue substitutes the previous issue's page one--though both print and digital issues feature a lone caption on the cover that presumably seeks to soften the blow for the Thunderbolts reader who might have been expecting (say it with me) a Thunderbolts story.



As to the new format, your first assumption here going in might be that some or all of the characters in this six-issue story would eventually become "the new Thunderbolts" that Page One is announcing--some of whom, like their predecessors, are super-villains looking to put their criminal past behind them. (In this case, the reason mainly due to having had too many run-ins with Spider-Man--Man-Killer, for instance, who receives more focus here than in most of her previous appearances.) But other than that loose association with the original concept for the Thunderbolts, you won't find the word itself mentioned in a single panel of the entire story, though we come tantalizingly close when Man-Killer, the Scorpion, and his companion Delilah meet with the story's principal character, Daniel Axum (the Battler), to join them in getting revenge on Spider-Man.



Given separate developments that take place involving Axum and Man-Killer, however, nothing really comes of this conversation, while Gargan and Delilah soon wind up captured by Spider-Man. Through it all, the book appears to depend on its cheesecake covers and tabloid format to tempt more readers, some of whom no doubt are wondering what the heck any of this has to do with the Thunderbolts.



(A clever play on words as far as the captions for issue #81's cover, which collectively appear to wonder if anyone was still reading Thunderbolts by the time this final issue of the story hit the stands.)

All of that said, the main story with Axum is a decent read, courtesy of writer John Arcudi, with the character's affirmation arriving in the final issue at the point where he's tempted to throw in with Gargan, Man-Killer, and Delilah, until a conversation he has with the Armadillo--now derelict after Axum defeated him and took his place in an underground fight league--reminds him indirectly of why he wanted to stick to the straight and narrow after Spider-Man put him in prison for three years.



As for Black Panther, while there are allusions to and sparse appearances by T'Challa whose role here is cloaked in mystery, the story arc's protagonist is Kasper Cole, who lives with his mother and his pregnant girlfriend in Harlem where we find him at loose ends while suspended for five days from the police force--but, after finding the Panther costume in an alley, decides to don it for its bulletproof protection and go out at night anonymously to do police business. The "hook" that Priest provides which is likely meant to pique the reader's interest in this new Panther, and in the story in general, takes place when Cole encounters the White Wolf (or, rather, the other way around), and an explanation of sorts is forthcoming.



Whether or not the "don't miss it" collective vibe of Messrs. Almond, Raicht, Marts, and Ms. Suma or the stamp of approval from Mr. Busiek was enough to sway you toward sitting down with these stories is something which you'll hopefully share, as well as whether or not those efforts panned out for you. For myself, I must admit to originally picking up just the first two issues of the Thunderbolts story before removing it from my pull list, though I was obliged to finish it at long last for the purpose of this review. The Black Panther story, however, I stuck with from start to finish, and was generally satisfied at the time with how Priest handled it--though I would say that it may be suited to more of a Masterworks or TPB presentation which allows the reader to binge through it rather than experience a lag between issues where one doesn't necessarily recall the pieces of the puzzle which Priest has supplied throughout. For those of us who read these issues when they were published in 2003, the decision to release the last six issues on a biweekly schedule turned out to be a big help in that regard.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The X-Men Review Heard 'Round The Newsgroup!

 

Comics readers who were just getting their feet wet with the Internet as early as the late 1980s and early 1990s may well recall its popular discussion forum, Usenet, which actually had its beginning several years prior but hit its stride when its "newsgroups" were embraced and expanded upon as more and more of the general public found their way onto "the World Wide Web." In time, those groups would migrate to various websites which continue to host them; but until then, they managed to thrive in all their no-frills Unix glory--screens and screens of unformatted text on your monitor, vibrant and active with the wit and thoughts of countless contributors who took an interest in any of the wide variety of categories and topics one could choose from.

Depending on how prolific you were in your writing and how engaged you were in this medium, a benefit of browsing through Usenet newsgroups was encountering those who stood out in this unique crowd and became anchors of a sort in whatever sub-categories you frequented in Usenet's many-branched tree. One of those individuals whose entries I often enjoyed during that time was David R. Henry, a man then in his late 20s (about ten years younger than myself) who originated the "xbooks" group embedded in alt.rec.arts.comics (an example of the tree-like nomenclature of newsgroups) and whose comics reviews were frank, sarcastic, incisive, and delightfully riveting, while at times unsparing in his blunt observations when warranted. In the case of Marvel Comics, the stories that were churned out in the mid-'90s were arguably deserving of that bluntness, the company's financially floundering ship seemingly rudderless in terms of the questionable quality of its stories produced during this time.


Yet rather than damning, Henry included a combination of sarcasm and humor to make his points--good ones, at that--and more often than not you would find that those points were often right on target. Below, you'll get a chance to determine that for yourself concerning one particular X-Men issue: Henry's review of X-Men Unlimited #4 from March 1994, an article in my memories now for over 25 years and of course by this time reproduced in a number of outlets on the web. Only this time, you'll find included selected images from the issue, which were not allowed in the original postings of Usenet but which will serve here to highlight Henry's descriptions of the story's content. (Though I believe you'll agree that Henry's adeptness in that regard is far from lacking!)

Going in, you might also bear in mind that, until companies such as AOL, CompuServe, et al. came along and offered their own forums (to say nothing of third-party message boards), Usenet's newsgroups were the go-to destination for online discourse by not only those who sought a niche in which to air their opinions, but also those who were the very talent behind the books, shows, and films that were being bandied back and forth in postings. As such, there was good reason for these newsgroups to establish a character or line limit to individual posts, since many users hadn't yet found the value of brevity in their writings. Such will prove to be the case with Henry's mixture of diatribe and humor here, which, as many of us can attest to from our own writings from our 20s, had yet to evolve to a more concise approach.

Yet Henry's article is quite a read as is*--and overall, hopefully an enjoyable one which provides a glimpse of what it may have been like to be a Marvel reader in 1994, come hell or high water.

*A few minor misspellings have been corrected.


X-Men Unlimited #4

"Theories of Relativity"

Writer: Scott Lobdell, blowing his good will to pieces
Pencils: Richard Bennett
Inks: Steve Moncuse
Colors: Glynis Oliver, a ray of hope in the darkness
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Kelly Coverse, under BOB/Tom

I am really getting tired of stupid villains.

That may seem like a strange thing to say in a X-Man newsgroup. Because, yeah, I know -- this isn't Cerebus. This isn't Grendel. This isn't some high-falutin' alternative rant on the power structure of the dispossessed. It's a superhero comic, dealing with bad guys with silly names parading around in capes and being beat senseless by strong-jawed good guys. Okay, fine, I accept that. When I read a X-Man comic, even though I know it could be more, I know the current target ideal for Marvel isn't the high standards of Sandman, or From Hell, or what have you. It's to provide a little bit of social commentary disguised as a rousing conflict between Evil and Good. Fine. Accepted.

With all of that, nothing of the above automatically disqualifies any of these minor, inconvenient plot points:

--Believable characterization

--Lucid plots

--Intelligent villains played intelligently (dumb ones should be dumb, of course, but just perhaps we should be able to tell the difference, right?)

--Good storytelling.

There. All I ask for from any story, be it a campfire ghostly-ghoulie, a comic book, a movie, or what have you. Those four things. Actually, just the last thing. The others are the candy that shapes the cake, if you will. The force behind the hammer. The columns under the roof. And so on.

Now we come to X-Men Unlimited #4.

[pause while there is a deep, weeping intake of breath]