Thursday, April 15, 2021

"This Man... This Monster!"

 

"Quite possibly this may be one of the greatest illustrated epics yet..."

A number of you who have read issues of Fantastic Four published in the 1960s more than likely recall a story from mid-1966 which featured this classic depiction of the Thing by artist Jack Kirby:

 
(Pictured here alongside Mike Deodato Jr.'s homage to Kirby's rendition) 

 
It's curious how this issue has become so highly regarded--or, more directly, what makes it so highly regarded. At first glance, the splash page, as well as the pages which follow, appear to indicate that this issue will be a turning point for Ben Grimm, perhaps focusing on his status as the Thing and featuring a reckoning in one form or another. Yet when you read this issue cover to cover, you realize that it instead quickly segues from the brooding of Ben Grimm to a plot which all but removes him from the story. That's hard to believe after looking at this issue's startling cover, which seems to indicate that not only is the Thing indeed a fixture of this story, but he's also involved in a crucial moment that sees one of his teammates fighting for his life, whose best friend stands in stony silence and makes no move to save him.

 

Monday, April 12, 2021

"Every Hand Against Him!"

 

It's hard to believe, but as we've seen, even as bizarre a partnership as that of the Cobra and Mister Hyde was enough of a challenge to the God of Thunder to occupy a good deal of Thor's time and effort in collaring them. Even so, our dastardly duo was well and truly thrashed by the time the dust settled--particularly Hyde, whose boasts about his strength being more than a match for Thor earned him a considerable dose of humility after meeting his foe in hand-to-hand combat.

So off to jail these two went--and normally, we wouldn't hear from captured and jailed super-criminals until a good deal of time had passed, enough for them to lick their wounds and presumably hire a good lawyer to get them out on parole well before their non-super-powered brothers behind bars. (Either that, or use their powers to escape at the first opportunity--there were no specialized detention facilities like Ryker's Island or the Vault for super-villains in those days.) But in this case, it took only a few issues for Hyde and the Cobra to reappear--all because Loki, the God of Evil, saw enough potential in them to post bail for them in the amount of $500K in order to make use of them against his half-brother, Thor--after making a considerable upgrade to their powers, that is.

Call me crazy, Loki, but somehow I don't think these two have any plans to show up for their trial. Then again, what's a half-million in mortal currency to you?

On paper, Loki's upgrades for Hyde and the Cobra might appear to be impressive, particularly in the case of Hyde whose strength is now doubled to that of two dozen men. But as for the Cobra, whose cobra-like abilities only amounted to speed and cunning, he received the short end of Loki's stick as he still must rely on specialized equipment like gas and poison darts against his foes, though his normal strength has now been doubled to that of two men--a trifle compared to Hyde, but he'll need every edge he can get if he and Hyde are going up against Thor again.

And so with five previous issues under their collective belt, we again are presented with the threat of the Cobra and Mister Hyde, more powerful and dangerous than ever--and who, thanks to Loki's plan, will also have the advantage of holding a hostage in the form of Jane Foster, nurse and love interest to Thor's alter-ego of Dr. Donald Blake. Yet from a look at this story's covers, it also appears that Asgard itself will play a major part in this conflict--but with Thor intent on saving the life of the mortal woman he is forbidden to love, will Odin be with the Thunder God, or against him?

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Face Of Vengeance

 

While Tomb Of Dracula often spent quality time on Dracula's obsessions of revenge or power--whether it was his conflicts with Quincy Harker and his group, or furthering his goal of world rule by vampires, or warring with Doctor Sun, or accumulating power through his Dark Church cult, or even his periodic and invariably disastrous meetings with his daughter, Lilith--writer Marv Wolfman would also pause at times and provide a change of pace with compelling diversions into mystery and the macabre for the lord of vampires, a number of which the PPC has had the pleasure of exploring. Some that come to mind may ring familiar:

Fact vs. Fiction - Angie Turner has drawn close to her a number of fictional characters to whom she has somehow given life, but oversteps herself when she seeks to draw Dracula into that circle.

Hell Hath No Fury... - A web of deceit and murder spun by fashion executive Daphne von Wilkinson, who strikes a bargain with Dracula to take revenge against the men who screwed her over (so to speak) to facilitate their own ambitions.

Journal Of Darkness - A compendium of instances where Dracula has paused to reflect on those times in his life which filled him with pride, or rage, or even regret.

In Death Do We Join! - In the Russian village of Kamenka, an abusive husband returns from the grave as a vampire to menace his wife, in spite of the commands of Dracula to fall in line.

Return From The Grave! - A corpse rises from the grave to reclaim his own--a mystery which draws the attention of Scotland Yard, and defies even Dracula.

More such tales are in the offing here, never (heh heh) fear--but one tale which surely falls into this category comes from mid-1976, when Dracula was establishing his power base in his satanic cult and makes preparations to take part in a ceremony where he will be joined with a wife. Yet the nuptials of the "Dark-Lord" will be overshadowed by a gruesome threat from a dead man--one who seeks revenge against those responsible for bringing his life to an untimely, acidic end!

 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Should The Hammer Be Lost...!

 

When Thor, the God of Thunder, arrived on the scene in the early '60s, Marvel had raised the bar in terms of a character who didn't succumb to mortal weakness and whose power dwarfed what Earth's super-beings at the time could wield and deploy. Yet since Thor was for the most part facing mortal nemeses in his 1962-66 feature title, Journey Into Mystery, he was given a vulnerability that would insert a bit of uncertainty into Thor's conflicts for his new readers by providing him with an Achilles heel (er, hammer) that would allow his foes to become a viable threat to even a god.


Having already explored the perplexing subject of the Thunder God's sixty-second liability in a previous post, it becomes easier to turn our focus to another means by which Thor's exploits became more marketable, a tried-and-true tool which has been applied to giving a leg up to any number of new comics concepts but could prove particularly challenging for a character such as Thor--specifically, the eccentric and outlandish threats which we began to see grace the mag's covers, many of whom were shown to give Thor a run for his money in spite of what they actually brought to the table. To name a few:

Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man, the poor man's Kang--a time traveler who at times (heh, get it?) traveled to our century to gain the means by which to secure his power base in his own;

Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism who would like nothing better than to conscript the Thunder God to his cause;

The Absorbing Man, who owes to Loki his power to absorb the strength and power of whatever he comes into contact with;

The Grey Gargoyle, a chemist who turns to crime when he accidentally comes into contact with a potion which turns him to stone and allows his touch to do likewise to others;

Sandu, a stage magician whose "powers" are enhanced a thousandfold by Loki; and Merlin, who returns from medieval times and schemes to take control of the U.S. government. (Take a number, pal.) Both magicians apparently have the same strategy when it comes to Thor:



But for any Thor aficionado, we must add two others to the list: the Cobra, who, well, slithers, and whose initial claim to fame was that he was fast enough to dodge Thor's hammer; and Mister Hyde, the result of a potion which gave disgruntled, out of work scientist Calvin Zabo a more malicious appearance (and tendencies to match) while also providing him with the strength of twelve men.


And as will become apparent, a villain having an inflated ego can be another tool which can serve to convince the reader that even the God of Thunder faces a true danger here.






Hyde, like the Cobra, will come to feel that his new power made him more than a match for Thor. Yet that's quite a leap for the Cobra to make, who ends up depending on a number of devices to supplement his cobra-like movements when Thor finally catches up with him--as if even writer Stan Lee realized that there's not much to this villain otherwise, aside from his motif.




As for Hyde, who seeks revenge against Donald Blake, the doctor's office is his first stop, where he manages to shove Blake out of a window to his presumed death before moving on with his plans. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing that Blake and Thor are one and the same, though the news that one has saved the other only infuriates him more.



But as for any thoughts of superiority Hyde might have held over his opponent, well...


Both Hyde and the Cobra manage to escape being taken into custody--though soon afterward, we're treated to one of the most bizarre partnerships ever.

 

Monday, March 29, 2021

"And The Wind Howls... Wendigo!"

 

For a mythical creature, the tale of the Wendigo as told by Marvel Comics proved to be something of a success story in regard to its three individual yet connecting parts which spanned from 1973 to 1980, with Part 3 finally bringing closure to the core characters who became entwined in the horrific circumstances of the monster's creation. In Part 1, we learned of a doomed hunting party made up of Paul Cartier, Henri Cluzot, and Georges Baptiste, who were attacked by wolves (you brought your guns on this hunting trip, didn't you, fellas?) and sought refuge in a cave, where Cluzot, mortally wounded, soon died. Having lost their supplies, and with the threat of the wolves keeping them there (no, I don't know what kept the wolves from entering the cave), Cartier and Baptiste were slowly starving to death--until, on the fourth day, Baptiste awoke to find that Cartier had succumbed to cannibalism with Cluzot's corpse. That, in turn, triggered the curse of the Wendigo, as Baptiste became witness to Paul Cartier transforming before his eyes into the woodsbeast.

With Baptiste weaponless and weak from hunger, he became easy prey for the Wendigo, who took him by force out of the cave and into the woods, where the creature eventually stopped to sleep--trapping Baptiste underneath it, still alive, but his moments numbered until the Wendigo would become hungry and finally feast. Only the timely arrival of the Hulk on the scene saved the man's life--and from there, the Hulk returned Baptiste to the camp of Cartier's sister, Marie, who learned from Baptiste of her brother's horrid fate.

At that point, the story had the ingredients to build on itself and become, in essence, a trilogy. Part 1 ends with the Hulk attempting, and failing, to save Paul Cartier's quickly fading intelligence from being supplanted by the bestial instincts and cravings of the Wendigo; yet the story continues with the return of Marie Cartier, with Georges Baptiste at her side--a woman who is determined to return her lost brother to life, by dooming the one she has selected to take on the Wendigo's cursed existence instead.



The fact that Baptiste stresses that he's not helping Marie out of any sense of debt to her is a welcome touch to this scene, since it places the burden of guilt for her plan where it belongs: the troubled character of Marie herself, and the lengths she's willing to go to in order to bring her brother back. The fact that Paul wanted to be a doctor makes the man no saint, nor is it relevant since Cluzot had been dead when Paul resorted to cannibalism; in addition, Baptiste certainly wasn't responsible for dragging Paul along on a hunting trip, or for the wolf attack which drove the group into a cave from which there was no escape.

It probably goes without saying that Marie has chosen the Hulk to be the vessel that will take on the curse of the Wendigo and thus free her brother from its form. But in this two-part installment of the story, there will be another figure who will play a part in this drama, in his first Marvel appearance--a figure who, if he succeeds in his mission, will unknowingly deprive Marie of the unwitting help of the Hulk, and the Hulk of his existence!

 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

This Power Denied!

 

At the close of 1969, Captain America's life was changed dramatically, about as dramatically as anyone could change it given the opportunity and the means. In this case, that person turned out to be the Red Skull, who recovered the Cosmic Cube after losing it during a pitched battle with his foe and used its power to switch their bodies--and to "cap" his revenge, the Skull moves in on Steve Rogers' love interest, Sharon Carter, as the real Cap realizes that his situation has become practically hopeless.



His plan in motion, the Skull amuses himself by milking his newfound status as Captain America while using the Cube to monitor the movements of the real Cap, who makes his way to Avengers Mansion in an attempt to convince his teammates of his bona fides and secure their help; but, distrusted and doubted from the beginning, the attempt fails, and the pseudo Skull is rendered unconscious as the Avengers leave to respond to a S.H.I.E.L.D. alert.

It's then that the Skull decides to add another level of peril to Cap's struggle, by transporting him to the island of the Exiles--former allies of the Skull who now wish vengeance on him, and will attack him on sight. But after Cap's initial clash with the group upon arrival, he later discards the Skull's mask so that he'll hopefully be unrecognizable to them, while further disguising his features as a precaution. In addition, this would turn out to be the moment when Cap meets Sam Wilson*, a former hireling of the Exiles, whom Cap begins to train in hand-to-hand fighting in order to become a symbol to the natives that Sam has begun to organize and band together to rebel against the Exiles.

*Both Sam and the reader have yet to learn of his identity as "Snap Wilson"--that his past as he remembers it is a sham, and that he's been manipulated by the Skull into being a sleeper agent for use at some future point against Cap.

Clearly the Skull, who holds the power to obliterate Cap with a thought, wishes to savor his revenge, with the goal of crushing Cap's indomitable spirit; but his patience becomes exhausted when both Cap and the Falcon are successful in motivating the natives to rise up against the Exiles, a development which infuriates the Skull and forces him to finally take a personal hand against his enemy. To that end, he abruptly changes the venue for himself and his foes--and the endgame of this drama finally begins.

(Of course the issue's cover might render the moment anticlimactic! Maybe the Skull just tripped?)
 

Monday, March 22, 2021

"Spawn Of The Flesh-Eater!"

 

It's Spring, 1973--and while your humble host was finishing up his sophomore year in high school, two of Marvel's super-heroes were showing up in the frigid climes of Canada, though for entirely separate reasons. In addition, there was another character who would encounter them both, an individual less super but formidable in his own right--Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who sought and received permission to enter the country in order to conduct an operation which would take down the mightiest mortal on the face of the Earth!



Meanwhile, Peter Parker, whom you and I know as the amazing Spider-Man, has travelled to Montreal to investigate a matter involving his Aunt May--and in a press conference which Peter drops in on, we find that Ross appears to have a different motive for coming after the Hulk than any concern for our Canuck neighbors.


While Ross has certainly had his reasons for wanting to wipe the Hulk from existence on more than one occasion, in this instance his ire is mostly due to his efforts to keep his daughter, Betty, in the dark as to the Hulk having recently been discovered to be alive after being presumed dead for a time. In that interim, Betty, after pining so long for Bruce Banner, had finally decided to accept the hand of Maj. Glenn Talbot in marriage--which helps to explain Ross's almost frantic efforts to, ah, remove the Hulk before Betty learns that Banner is still among the living. (And I can guess what you're thinking: Maybe Ross should have thought through the fact that holding a press conference on his hunt for the Hulk wasn't the best way to go about that.)

You'll find the PPC's rundown on Spidey's subsequent tangling with the Hulk in a prior post. But as for the Hulk--well, thanks to Ross conscripting the Abomination to take out the Hulk only to have his monstrous pawn double-cross him and spill the beans to the Hulk on Betty's marriage, the green goliath made tracks for Niagara Falls, where he ran into Tiger Shark, followed by his arrival in the Canadian southland where he became involved in a struggle with the Beast who was working to save the life of Cal Rankin, the Mimic. And now, as the Hulk struggles to think of how to find Betty while lost in whatever province of Canada he's ended up in, he'll find himself crossing paths for the first time with a dangerous creature out of Canadian folklore which, unfortunately for the Hulk, is no myth but is instead frighteningly real!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Should Auld Connections Be Forgot

 

Though it may have been the only thing to be done in order for Marvel Comics to continue in the 21st century to make their 20th century characters the foundation of their publishing business, it's regrettable to some degree that the company was forced to free itself from the constraints of continuity and simply insert their characters in stories that exercised only a modicum of familiarity with past behavior and history. In a way, it could be said that they were jettisoning one set of constraints only to be bound by others--for while many character origins had been revised to avoid being hamstrung by untenable connections to previous points in history, there are a number of scenes which can no longer be drawn on to help define the makeup of those classic characters who are still having adventures five decades after their introduction.

All things considered, I'd imagine such concerns are trivial matters to the Marvel of today, given the juggernaut success of their films and streaming content that help to sustain and are in part sustained by their print material--and certainly, there's enough present-day domestic and global conflict to keep Marvel's writers busy with character-building moments. Yet there are certain scenes and connections which are no longer feasible--particularly for characters like Captain America, who, regardless of what time period he was reawakened in, is locked into World War II as the time in which he originally fought and became a legend. And with it now being over 75 years later, there are few to no instances left for him to be provided with story material that allows him to interact with those friends and comrades who were also alive during that brutal time in history--meetings that resonate with the heroism of those who, unlike Cap, had to resign themselves to death.

For example, one such battle awaited Lord Montgomery Falsworth, who fought in the war as Union Jack and who must do what little he can to stop the killing spree of his brother, the man known as Baron Blood. In spite of Cap's urging to leave this fight to those better suited to it, Falsworth is adamant that he be allowed to do his part.


But a younger man instead insists on stepping into the Union Jack uniform, making it possible for Cap to do what he must to bring an end to Baron Blood's killing. Nevertheless, Falsworth breathed his last that day--a touching ending to the story, and a farewell to a part of Steve Rogers' life that helped to mold the Captain America we know today.


Similar scenes have played out at one time or another, depending on the passage of time and the circumstances in which a character felt his own time had come. Instances such as when Cap was notified that Jeff Mace, the Patriot, was on his deathbed from cancer--or when Bucky Barnes, as the new Captain America, wanted to pay a last visit to one of the Young Allies, Pat O'Toole ("Knuckles"), at a veterans hospital.





But unless a writer of today happens upon a character who was ten or fifteen years old at the end of the war, Cap isn't likely to have further encounters with wartime survivors like Anna Kappelbaum.


And there are others of Marvel's flagship characters who have immutable roots in the past, people who don't (or didn't) have the luxury of having ingested a serum which slowed their aging process--most notably, the Fantastic Four, whose origin story has been revised to that of a government-cancelled starship project which Reed Richards and his friends decided to launch anyway, this time stripping the moment of any motivation having to do with a foreign power. But the four individuals remained young and vital through the decades since (while bringing up two growing children), even having experienced character-building moments that would otherwise anchor them in 20th century history--conversations which we must assume have almost certainly been wiped from their present-day thoughts.




(To those of you who have kept up with their current stories, I can't help but be curious: Just how far back do the memories of the FF go now?)

Nick Fury's origin was also tweaked to accommodate his adventures in the 21st century, being treated with an "infinity formula" which slowed his aging process. Nevertheless, age was very much on his mind in 1972 when he suspected an agent he was romantically involved with of being interested in the younger Captain America, leading to a volatile scene with Fury's "rival."


Yet we're forced to take into account the fact that Fury was given his age-slowing formula just before the end of World War II, which paints this scene in a different light than that of an "old warhorse" being consumed with jealously and rage over a celebrated and younger man who fought in the same war but hadn't paid his dues in the years of conflict which followed. For one thing, it means that Fury's anger at Cap is likely based at least in part on the fact that his formula is less effective than whatever age-slowing elements exist in Cap's super-soldier serum. Though jumping ahead to the present, we also have to contend with whatever year Marvel has now established for Cap being found and revived by the Avengers (I'm guessing it's around the year 2000?), which means Fury's clash with Cap couldn't have taken place as written since it firmly places Cap's revival in 1964.

All of this comprises a train of thought that might not amount to much--particularly if Marvel has somehow sifted through all of this and created an approach they're satisfied is working for their readers. For the last ten years or so, they've proven that they can prune or even cut down a few trees, with no apparent harm to the forest--i.e., their characters seem to need no substantive ties to the past (other than the sparse details of their origins) in order for meaningful and even compelling stories to be produced, an assertion which contemporary readers and movie-goers appear to agree with. And while characterization stemming from connections to the past remains important, there are arguably ways to achieve it other than by looking back to the past, or to past characters, to provide its framework. I don't happen to be fully on board with either of those statements, given how past events in comics have so often been the impetus for the drama to come, something that writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, et al. were so adept at making use of; yet I would concede that in the here and now, Marvel's comics are still doing their job of entertaining their readers while having shifted to a different formula of storytelling than what was to be found in their earlier body of work. Whether there's any merit to that statement, of course, remains in the province of the reader.