Friday, July 21, 2017

The Second Coming of... Galactus!

Issue #77 of Fantastic Four concludes a story that was likely highly anticipated by FF readers in mid-1968--the first reappearance of Galactus in the book since the character's debut two years earlier. In that original tale, at "gunpoint" from the Ultimate Nullifier, Galactus agreed to spare the Earth from his ravaging and withdraw; and since his herald, the Silver Surfer, had renounced service to him, Galactus stranded the Surfer on our world with no means of returning to roam the galaxies ever again. Galactus had both praise and words of warning for the human race in the moments leading up to his departure, seemingly leaving our fate in our own hands--yet, now aware of our planet's existence, would he ever have cause to return and once again present a danger to all life on Earth?

Exactly what type of scenario storytellers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would come up with in terms of the circumstances of Galactus' return to our planet--as well as what role the Surfer would play in the unfolding events--remained to be seen. For Kirby, who would essentially lay out the entire story for Lee to script, how Galactus evolved as a character from this point would depend on what details Lee supplied him for the plot, and how much Kirby could or would expand on them. If we flip through the pages of the entire arc, it's apparent that Galactus has returned for the Surfer, having become desperate in his search for a consumable world that would assuage his hunger and ultimately pressuring the Fantastic Four to surrender his former herald. Because of where the Surfer decides to take refuge, the FF also become involved again with Psycho-Man, the menace from Sub-Atomica; and there is also the continuing subplot of Sue Richards' pregnancy that's given minor attention here and there. In total, that comes to eighty pages of story for Kirby to hand over to Lee--and with expectations high for the second appearance of Galactus in Fantastic Four--particularly with the story serving to promote the debut of the new Silver Surfer title--that gives Lee eighty pages to hopefully turn into another FF classic on par with the original.

Whether or not Lee and Kirby succeeded in fulfilling those expectations is debatable, and perhaps barely at that. Galactus remaining at a considerable distance from Earth for the duration of the story and instead manifesting his character and threat in the form of bold and dramatic word balloons from "on high" doesn't inspire awe in either the FF or the populace so much as it does terror and dread, robbing Galactus of the one aspect that makes him a fascinating threat: the sheer sight of this alien casually preparing to destroy our world simply because he must, with all humanity helpless to do anything but gaze up at his preparations. Also, there is the lack of the unknown element to the story that changes everything--the equally new character of the Silver Surfer, whose interference was given not just in power, but in the words he used to attempt to sway his master from his course of action, arguments that were rebutted just as compellingly by Galactus. It was a drama that played out on many levels, tangents that Kirby and Lee attempt to duplicate in the newer tale but which appear to take considerably more effort to interweave and make relevant.

It also seems here as if Lee is having difficulty adapting to the story that Kirby has visually produced, difficulty that would continue to become more evident as this once-exceptional creative team steadily approached its dissolution. For instance, there's the announced return of Galactus and his need once again for the Surfer--yet things proceed confusingly from there, and many questions linger. Will the Surfer petition for his freedom? Will he rejoin his master? Why is the Surfer so skittish and reticent? Why involve the FF, instead of meeting directly with Galactus? According to the Torch, there's no real problem, for either the Surfer or Earth--but in the following scene, complications seem to arise out of thin air, and it's hard to determine just what crisis is going to drive this story.

"Starving"? The fact that Galactus has a voracious hunger should come as a surprise to no one, since this entity needs to consume entire planets on a regular basis--so we can conclude that, no matter what state of hunger Galactus arrived at Earth in, he would be a severe and present danger. In other words, the stakes aren't raised here any higher than they would be otherwise; the fact that Galactus has returned to Earth is cause for apprehension and alarm in itself. In any event, what difference would Galactus' hunger make to the Surfer? As the Torch points out in so many words, the Surfer can simply resume his task as herald and solve two problems at once--his desire to return to space, and sating the hunger of Galactus.

It's at this point the story takes a right turn when Galactus' servant, the Punisher, arrives to seize the Surfer, only to be attacked by the Surfer who then blends into the background while the Thing and the Torch take over. For all intents and purposes, the Surfer then just... disappears, courtesy of Kirby and Lee, with no explanation in either script or narrative. How and why he does so depends on which member of the FF you're asking, since they don't seem to be keeping each other in the loop on the subject--nor is it clear just when the members of the FF decided to keep the Surfer under wraps. Was it ever settled just what the Surfer was going to do? We still don't know at this point, and we won't be getting any help from the FF. The Thing, who decided to take on the Punisher to give the Surfer time to recover from his failed attack on Galactus' alien Rottweiler, seems to suddenly think the Surfer is missing rather than resting...

...the Torch suddenly upgrades the Surfer's status from M.I.A. to "hidden":

...while Mr. Fantastic, who's joined this fight after spotting it from another location and has no idea that the Surfer has returned, has that brain of his working overtime, since out of the blue he realizes the Surfer is not only involved but "hidden" as well, even though he hasn't been briefed at all on the situation by his two partners:

From here, it comes down to a waiting game, as the FF observe Galactus' efforts to search for the Surfer from his vantage point in space while they move to an isolated location off of Manhattan in case Galactus decides to pursue his grievance with them. We're left to assume that they're totally complicit with the Surfer's efforts to conceal himself, though they have no idea as yet as to where he might have gone. (At least you seem to know why he's disappeared, gentlemen--that's more than we can say.) Unfortunately, their loyalty to the Surfer and resolve to help him don't amount to much when they're sufficiently threatened--and presto, they fold like a tent.

Returning to Reed's lab, they discover that the Surfer has perused notes on an experiment Reed was working on to travel to the Microverse, and decided to take refuge in a universe that would escape the notice of even Galactus.

Reed obviously remembers a lot more from that earlier battle with Psycho-Man than he should, considering that he never took part in it. Instead, he was a little preoccupied with another matter at the time:

Be that as it may, the next installment of the story involves the FF's attempt to corral the Surfer and hopefully convince him to return--though it would be nice to know why the heck he went into hiding. Is it a simple matter of the Surfer not wanting to return to Galactus' service? Does he believe that Galactus wants to harm him? We don't yet know the Surfer's origin story, so we're working in the dark; it seems unlikely that the Surfer fears Galactus, though all indications point to that for some reason. Yet we do know that the crisis boils down to this: If the Surfer doesn't return, Galactus will be forced to consume the Earth. And after witnessing the FF's desperate attempts to apparently capture him (wasn't the Surfer the least bit curious as to why these men he considered his allies had done an about-face and were now coming after him and trying to subdue him?), he decides to return and meet with Galactus.

Again, the implication that the Surfer is facing an unknown fate with Galactus, that he's taking a chance in returning, when it's clear that Galactus' primary concern lies only in satisfying his hunger. And exactly what "sacrifice" does the Torch feel the Surfer is making? Contrary to Reed's response, the Surfer doesn't have any "sky-born freedom" to give up--he never did.

Regardless, off he goes, and this story finally comes to a head. But with the fate of the Earth in the balance, and the FF's loved ones perhaps facing their last moments, Reed Richards nevertheless decides that the Fantastic Four should stay and battle a super-villain--one who, up to this point, was minding his own business in Sub-Atomica and posed no immediate threat to Earth.

"There's nothing more we can do--up there!" Hold that thought for a minute, won't you?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Hulk Must Die!

How many Avengers would be needed to take out the Hulk?

Probably a LOT more than this.

The Avengers don't often resort to piling on where the Hulk is concerned, but the brute hasn't given them much choice here. Thanks to a procedure by Leonard Samson that has successfully separated Bruce Banner from his monstrous alter ego, the Hulk now no longer has Banner's subconscious influence keeping in check his rage--and with the monster escaped and at large, innocent lives are threatened wherever he appears. Samson himself has failed to stop his advance--ditto for the quartet of Hercules, the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, and Wonder Man, in their capacity as Avengers.

In a prior post, we've already covered the circumstances of this story as well as how things turned out for both the Hulk and Banner--but what role did the Avengers play here? Well, they possibly prevented any of the townspeople of Jericho, New Mexico from coming to harm while the Hulk was carving his path of destruction; and they also were able to get help for Samson, barely alive after the Hulk had used him as a human bludgeon to smash his way through the town. But not surprisingly, their fierce engagements with the Hulk also played a large part in Jericho itself biting the dust. And during that no-holds-barred battle, the Avengers found out the hard way that the phrase "Hulk smash!" is no exaggeration when finding themselves on the receiving end of the rampage of this 1,400-pound engine of destruction.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Killer, The Car

From what we've seen of the Fantasti-Car in action over the years, we all probably have some words of advice for General Ross, as he prepares to accompany the Fantastic Four to the Army's desert base:

Namely:  "Run for your life, General! This thing is a death trap!"

Whether or not Johnny succeeded in making the car look like less of a "bathtub" is debatable, though artist Jack Kirby managed to streamline it toward the end of his run on the book:

But nobody managed to make this puppy more safe, and less of a hazard to civilians (or even to its owners). Should the Fantasti-Car be scrapped? Given what we're about to see of her in operation, she appears to be well on the way to taking care of that herself--and maybe taking the FF along for the ride, so to speak.

For instance, the Fantasti-Car has proven to be vulnerable to any number of weapons. How about a "neutrak" ray fired from, of all things, a 35mm camera?

Whew! You know what they say: "Any landing you can swim away from..."

Then there's your standard energy beam, which will understandably do a little more damage than a Pentax and force the car's occupants to abandon ship:

Even Nick Fury (in disguise) has his sights on the car, when he's out testing new weaponry for S.H.I.E.L.D.:

Boy, it's never a good sign when Reed starts cursing his own equipment! But the question is, can he get a grip on himself and pull out of this dive? Sure he can--by letting the Thing wreck those controls in mid-dive!

Then there are those pesky tractor beams, which can cause the Fantasti-Car to virtually destroy itself:

Sometimes, however, a foe will prefer the personal touch in dealing with the FF and their transportation--such as giant alien gorillas who think they're King Kong.

There's also operator negligence that's been responsible for some close calls with the car. Take Reed, for instance, who picks the absolute wrong time and place to succumb to exhaustion:

(A bucket load of demerits for Johnny, as well, for failing to equip this rumble-seat airship with seatbelts.)

If Ben is on his way up to the cockpit, you just know your vital controls are going to get trashed--but thank goodness Reed's wife has the presence of mind to stick with it and use her, uh, "presence of mind" to save both the Fantasti-Car and a good number of civilians in the streets.

And what does it say about you when your vehicle becomes too darn complicated for even YOU to fly?

Of course, even when Reed is in full possession of his faculties, he doesn't always make the best driver for the Fantasti-Car.

As for Ben, our hotshot test pilot, he's aces in a crisis when he remembers to treat his controls like egg shells. But slipping up on preventive maintenance can result in harried situations both in mid-air and on the ground.

And last but by no means least, wouldn't you say it's a huge red flag on this piece of equipment when it can be used against you??

Stay sharp, Reed. That's one near-fatal incident involving the Fantasti-Car down--but plenty more coming your way.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Scarlet Centurion Strikes!

The 1968 Avengers Annual featured a top-notch story by Roy Thomas that pitted the original Avengers against their replacements, thanks to the machinations of the Scarlet Centurion--a time traveler who stops off in our century after his defeat in ancient Egypt as Rama-Tut and plots to rid the Earth of everyone who's invested with super-powers. And while there isn't a plethora of super-powered beings in '68, the Centurion still has his work cut out for him--so to facilitate his plan, he conscripts, of all people, the Avengers, who at this point in time are about to see one of their most powerful members, the Hulk, angrily depart from their ranks. That is, until fate materializes in their midst.

The Avengers, as Captain America later puts it, have of course been sold a bill of goods by the Centurion. We learn later in the story that the Centurion was also using "mildly hypnotic aura and vocal devices" to help convince the Avengers of his sincerity (and there will be a revisionist twist that sought to strengthen that part of Thomas's plot); so despite the very real possibility that the Avengers have been duped, and the fact that they haven't insisted that the Centurion substantiate these "flawless calculations" of his that conclude that those with super-powers must be neutralized before paradise can become a reality for the Earth, the team proceeds with their treacherous mission.

And once the Avengers have eliminated the heroes on their list in a virtual blitzkrieg of attacks, the world's villains are targeted and dealt with.

Mission accomplished, the Avengers move to ensure that no other super-powered humans appear on Earth in the future--though at this point, you'd probably be hard-pressed to find anyone left in the world who still regards these five as "Avengers," or even heroes.

The Centurion speaks of the five Avengers--Captain America, Goliath, the Wasp, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye--who have been displaced in time and are now at large in this altered past. Having already confronted and escaped the Avengers who had "gone bad," the group discovers the details of how the original team became corrupted and resolves to use the components of Dr. Doom's time machine in an attempt to set things right. In the process, they're forced to again battle their predecessors and, through resourcefulness and knowledge of their foes' capabilities and tactics, prevail. That left the Centurion to deal with, whom they learned was the mastermind behind their appearing in the past--reasoning that the newer team of Avengers might successfully manage to overcome the more powerful lineup and thus be a less formidable team of Avengers for the Centurion to dispose of. And though the Avengers' battle against the Centurion looks grim at the outset, they manage to activate the time machine and send the Centurion helplessly adrift through (you guessed it) the centuries.

Everything works out for the Avengers, who return to their own time with no memory of what had happened (thanks to our resident buttinsky, the Watcher, whose habit of interference makes him a laughing stock in his profession). But a 1981 What If story picks up this ball again when it asks the question:

And this time, we'll hear from the original Avengers on the subject.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Master Spell of Kulan Gath!

Our old friend Kulan Gath caused enough trouble for New Yorkers when a security guard at an art museum was forced to free the wizard's amulet from a display casing and subsequently found himself taken possession of--allowing Gath to put in motion a plan to bring the merciless elder gods known as the N'Garai into our dimension. Gath's plan was stopped by the unlikely team-up of the amazing Spider-Man and Red Sonja; but, six years later (our time), it looks like Gath has held a grudge for the web-slinger, since he returns to Manhattan with a vengeance and comes after Spidey again in a power-packed two-part story that will involve both the Avengers and the uncanny X-Men.

For those of you mostly unfamiliar with Kulan Gath, the following describes him in a nutshell (though you'll be finding out more about him as we go along):

Gath is able to materialize in our world once more when a man named Jaime Rodriguez discovers the ancient necklace containing Gath's amulet, but is later mugged by a low-life street thief who purloins the necklace and gets more than he bargained for when he proves to be more susceptible to Gath's power. But Spider-Man isn't all that Kulan Gath is gunning for this time around, seeking nothing less than the subjugation of the entire human race. And since the shock of the sight of 20th century New York disturbed him so greatly last time, Gath decides to begin remaking the world in his image--starting with the city's most populated borough.

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