Monday, September 21, 2020

Dr. Strange--Disciple Of Evil!

Other than on rare occasion, you wouldn't be likely to encounter circumstances where Stephen Strange would find cause to clash with the Ancient One, the wise sorcerer who turned his life around and took him on as his disciple in the practicing of the mystic arts. Once Strange decided to abandon his arrogance and selfishness as a high-priced surgeon and open his mind to the teachings of his new mentor, he'd found a calling that offered direction and purpose, as well as a new regard for his fellow man whom he had once held in such disdain--and his devotion to the Ancient One, based in both gratitude and respect, was beyond reproach.

Yet if one were to select a point when Strange might have chosen the more expedient path to achieving all he wanted, it might have been at the time when this man was the most vulnerable--seeking out the Ancient One in the snowy mountains of Tibet, driven by the slim hope that the mystic would be able to restore his injured hands so that he could return to his medical career in America and the lifestyle to which he'd become accustomed. In our reality, the Ancient One was able to wait out his visitor's impatience and skepticism until Strange's more noble instincts finally surfaced; but a late 1979 story by Peter Gillis explores the possibility of Strange's baser instincts being exploited, instead, with the Ancient One paying the price.

And under the circumstances, the fellow pictured in the background has good reason to gloat.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Lo! The Less-Sinister Lethal Legion!

Having had occasion recently to come across a cover of an unpublished cover of The Avengers from 1970, I found myself asking the same question that usually comes to mind in such instances: What prompted the decision to re-do this cover? It's enjoyable to look at the original draft with a critical eye and put yourself in the position of the one tasked with clearing it--or not clearing it--for publication, while trying to determine what it was about the original rendering that wasn't deemed either suitable or marketable; but we can probably agree how much more interesting it would have been to have learned the actual reason straight from the source. A pity some sort of index of these types of cover substitutions was never collected in book form, complete with notes detailing just that. We could call it "How To Draw Comics Covers the Marvel Way!" :D

There are no doubt a number of such covers that for whatever reason didn't make the grade, a few of which can be found in the PPC as well as other fine comics blogs and forums. This particular Avengers cover certainly invites speculation, given that it so closely aligns with the final cover with only a few "touch-up" alterations of note.

A purely symbolic cover by artist John Buscema, of course, unless the Grim Reaper got his hands (was his scythe over in the corner?) on some of Henry Pym's shrinking gas and used it on the Avengers so they would fit in their hourglass prison. The reality is a little different:

We'll have to take the Reaper's word that his victims' gaseous prison is part of a large hourglass-shaped structure, since it resembles more of a clamped bell jar here (leaving writer Roy Thomas no choice but to account for Buscema's cover image by means of dialog)--a very cramp fit for the likes of Goliath, no doubt.

Some differences between the two covers are understandable at a glance. The hourglass itself has been altered and shifted in position somewhat, perhaps to make room for the caption at the lower right announcing the members and name of the Lethal Legion without it overlapping Quicksilver (who has enough to worry about as it is); it's also worth mentioning that in the original, at least part of the hourglass is transparent. Also, the final version of the, eh, legionnaires has them looking appropriately sinister, but noticeably less sinister than their draft counterparts. (For what it's worth, I found their appearance on the original much more eye-catching from a sales standpoint, so I can't help but be curious as to the reason why that aspect was subsequently toned down.)

In addition, the Man-Ape has been lowered a bit, presumably to prevent part of his headpiece from being obscured by the masthead (or vice versa, though there have been plenty of instances where part of a cover's masthead has been eclipsed by the artwork)--while the corner box has shuffled the Avengers around (though leaving Goliath as is) and adjusted those heads which were tilting. As for our captives, with the exception of Captain America and the Black Panther, their expressions and positioning have been altered, along with the loss of some detailing--both observations holding true for our villains, as well.

Since the basic cover concept has remained intact, it remains unclear what would warrant the decision to have Buscema make what amounts to cosmetic revisions. Do pipe in with your own thoughts on the subject if you have something to add--the Legion certainly won't mind, considering that either way they still have the Avengers where they want them! ;)

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Mission Within The Mission

With Avengers writer Roger Stern establishing his own pace for the book in 1983 as he redefined the characterization and chemistry of the team (while of course providing the adventure and action necessary for it to thrive), there was often ample time to slow that pace occasionally and allow us to peek behind the doors of the team's Fifth Avenue mansion to see the Avengers concept at work as its members conducted day-to-day business, training, and other routine matters--something we've seen to an extent in other team books, but a rare privilege in a loose-knit group such as the Avengers who lead their own lives (and, in some cases, in their own homes) while off the clock.

Yet even personal and/or private matters can draw the Avengers together, as was the case in an issue from September of that year which sees two of their members preoccupied with a sense of loss--and, as it turns out, only a villain can make things right.

By the time of this particular story, we've seen the Avengers perform their duties while attempting to cope with certain events which continue to weigh on their thoughts in one form or another. One of those episodes involves Anthony Stark, who as Iron Man has abruptly left the team without warning or explanation--though readers of Invincible Iron Man know that the reason stems from Stark's losing struggle with alcoholism. And when Captain America and the Avengers' chairwoman, the Wasp, decide to pay a call on Stark in order to get to the bottom of his recent erratic behavior, they learn first-hand the extent of Stark's difficulties--or, more to the point, his downward spiral.

With nothing left to say (at least on Stark's part), Cap and the Wasp are forced to finally accept Stark's decision and leave it at that, though seeing their friend and one of their founding members slowly destroying himself through alcohol addiction no doubt leaves them feeling despondent and helpless (as it does with many people in their position).

The Scarlet Witch is also experiencing such feelings, due to a situation created when she and the Vision, as Avengers reservists, were called in to help with a crisis involving the Fantastic Four and a strange null field emanating from the Baxter Building. If not stopped, the danger the growing field presents to the entire city is clear--but for the Vision, his own encounter with it has an immediate effect on himself, and on his wife.

Regrettably, injuries suffered by the FF and those they care for have been devastating and require all of Reed Richards' attention, forcing Wanda to keep a bedside... er, tubeside vigil as she monitors the Vision for signs of life. But each of these instances continues to have profound effect on both Cap and Wanda; and in the aftermath of damage caused by a mysterious force that would prove to be responsible for the disappearance of Reed, it's becoming apparent that something will need to be done.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations of Iron Man, 1963-1977

When it comes to design and engineering, few would argue that Tony Stark has made his mark in the field and then some, with the Iron Man armor being perhaps his crowning achievement in terms of making a noteworthy contribution to the world. Yet looking back at what such an impressive suit of armor has allowed its wearer to accomplish and achieve, Stark himself has all too often found himself to be vulnerable to its flaws and, for a considerable time, a prisoner of its principal reason to exist: to keep his injured heart from failing. Those concerns arguably stem from a central and ever-present problem with the armor that Stark has never been able to do more than address as the need arose. Put simply: How to keep his armor's power levels from being depleted to the point where his heart is put at risk?

From day one, that has been the suit's handicap, and, by extension, Stark's--a man who, for a considerable period in his life (and in his comic's life), dealt with a heart condition which required the wearing of a metal chest plate at all times in order to keep it beating.* The flip side of that situation, of course, is that this handicap provides this character's tie-in with Marvel's "heroes with problems" theme--continuing to act as Iron Man, even though a moment may come at any time when the suit's power is compromised to such a degree that Stark suffers heart failure.** Even so, constantly seeing Iron Man fretting about his dwindling power supply during a battle, or scenes of him trying to drag himself to a wall electrical socket to ward off myocardial infarction, tends to wear on a reader.

*While continuing to date beautiful women who apparently had no problem with one of the most eligible bachelors in the country oddly rebuffing attempts to place a soft head or hand against his chest, much less initiating more forward attempts at intimacy. That adds up to a lot of women comparing notes on you around town, Mr. Stark.

**As a number of you might correctly point out, there's really no drama here in that respect. Tony Stark is the book's title character, so we know he'll survive no matter how many times he collapses in agony--good fortune he shares with Aunt May, closely linked to her book's title character who, in his case, keeps his identity secret to avoid triggering a fatal heart attack in his aunt due to the shock of learning of his existence as Spider-Man.

So the question remains: Why is it that Tony Stark, design engineer extraordinaire--knowing the problem, and realizing that it's the one crack in his armor (figuratively speaking) that might one day prove to be fatal--can't plant himself in front of a drafting table and think of a way to have his cake and eat it too? I.e., use the power of Iron Man, yet isolate his heart with a dedicated and shielded power supply that won't be linked to any systems failures he might encounter in battle?

It just so happens that he was able to do exactly that--or, rather, his alternate dimension counterpart did, in a mid-1977 What If story where the original Avengers had disbanded with the Hulk's departure and Iron Man was forced to battle both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner alone when the two joined forces. Necessity, it appears, really is the mother of invention:

But though battling valiantly, the odds against Iron Man were too great, and he was seriously injured at the scene. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing his new "armored Avengers" (Henry Pym, Janet Van Dyne, and Rick Jones, who had originally turned down his call for aid) would suit up and follow Iron Man to the battle site--and with Iron Man too weak to help with acclimating to the new armor, Giant-Man fell to the Hulk and lay in danger of dying. That is, until the golden Avenger makes the decision to drain his last reserves of power to save him.

But as for our Iron Man, I thought it might prove interesting to take the first 100 issues of the character's first series (including his Tales Of Suspense stories) and track the number of instances when Stark was forced or otherwise felt the need to redesign his armored suit in order to resolve certain problems or adapt to a particular set of circumstances. Several of those situations, it goes without saying, were based on his heart condition, which cleared a significant hurdle in 1973 when Stark found his heart had adapted to the synthetic tissue used to repair the organ during his operation in late 1969. Yet that wouldn't be the end of his problems in that regard, as we'll see.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

...In The Cause Of Death!

The universe is in deadly danger! The shadowy hand of the being known as Infinity extends its grip across the stars to engulf world after world, causing them to disappear into its Stygian darkness where their inhabitants are drained of their collective will and exist from that point to serve the one who holds them helpless. Made aware of the dire threat from the halls of Asgard, omnipotent Odin has travelled to the World Beyond to probe the secret of Infinity, but now battles for his immortal life--even as his son, Thor, having no recourse but to part with his mystic hammer in order to save his comrades, is forced to transform once more to his mortal form of Dr. Donald Blake and watch in horror as the servant of Infinity named the Guardian approaches to slay him!

"What to do?"--the question each of these men must ask themselves as they both face a moment of crisis. Blake dares not retreat from where he stands, since his hammer will descend to that very spot once it returns from its task, and changing back to Thor is his only chance to survive... but will it arrive too late? As for Odin, aware of his son's danger, he dares not turn his attention from battling a deadly foe who appears to be more than his equal, even for the moments it would take to save the Thunder God.

It seems that Odin has made his choice--and with the Guardian within arms' (and arms') reach of Blake, not a moment too soon!

Monday, August 31, 2020

Worlds Will Fall To... The World Beyond!

Having spent nine years (!) writing the continuous adventures of Thor in Journey Into Mystery, Mighty Thor, fifteen issues of The Avengers, and numerous guest appearances, Stan Lee would relinquish the reins on Thor's solo series by recycling a previous plot of Loki getting his hands on the Odin-ring (you'd think Odin would learn to avoid leaving his you-can-rule-Asgard-with-this-ring jewelry just lying around) into a new story that would be wrapped up by Gerry Conway. Yet just before reaching that point, at the beginning of 1971, Lee and artist John Buscema would turn in some noteworthy work on a five-part epic that featured a well-conceived plot that appeared to have everything a Thor reader could ask: a looming and ominous threat to the entire universe... a seemingly hopeless cause... the Goddess of Death... a mysterious new character... the approaching doom of Ragnarok... a siege on Asgard from Loki... a surprising twist on the story's main villain... and the end of life on planet Earth--all for the bargain price of 15¢ a copy, which worked out to 75¢ for the entire story. Think of what you're paying today for a single issue, and the budding Bronze Age of comics publishing looked pretty good, eh?

As for the nature of this threat--Thor, summoned back to Asgard, receives the grim news from Odin himself of the danger which the realm now suddenly faces. Harbingers of doom which appear to emanate from an indistinct... region? place? planet? ... known as the World Beyond.

(You may have noticed that Thor doesn't look so "unarmed" here. What's Mr. Caption up to?)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A World For The Taking!

As if we humans don't have enough to worry about from preying on each other, whether in brutal war or heinous criminal acts, humans in the fictional world of comic books were subject to attack and slaughter by primeval forces that regarded primitive man as no more than indigenous beasts to be subjugated and abused or killed without regard. It seems ancient Earth was very popular with malevolent beings that paid little to no heed to their treatment of humans and whose rule of the Earth would last for ages, eons, millennia, or whatever lengthy term suited the story's writer. Given such a vast time span, you would think the ruling periods of one or two of these despotic entities would have overlapped, resulting in a turf war that would have laid waste to the world and its unfortunate inhabitants--nor do we ever seem to learn of such horrific times from historical tomes, but rather from the vile creatures themselves who somehow manage to return with the intention of picking up where they left off.

Following you'll find a brief PPC overview on the subject, in no particular chronology or preference. You'll note certain omissions that didn't strictly conform to the topic (with one exception)--e.g., evolutionary tinkerers such as the Celestials, the Kree, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, et al., as well as latter-day threats along the lines of Belasco, Kulan Gath, the Serpent Men, and others acting on behalf of their masters. Nevertheless, do chime in if you feel there is a party that should be represented here--I'm definitely not up on all of the ancient horrors that tried to stake their claim on our world back in the day... er, eon. ;)

Though speaking of the Celestials, we can start with one of their discarded failures, the Deviants, who went on to conquer the entire world and enslave mankind for the duration.

Again, word of the ark has been passed down--but nothing about a race of misshapen monsters that kept humans as slaves and ruled in tyranny for centuries? How does something like that slip through the cracks?

Then we have Chthon, one of the Earth spirits who wasn't content to "step down" from an active role as did his sister, Gaea, but instead scripted one of the most evil grimoires in existence, the Darkhold, to pave the way for his return. Chthon, unlike the others we'll see listed here, didn't so much as gain a foothold on our world but, like Dormammu, didn't want for lack of trying.

We have Chthon to thank for vampires, werewolves and the like--as well as for the N'Garai, our next entry:

As we can see, creatures such as the N'Garai had many thralls such as Kierrok to act in their interests. And while the individual known as Psyklop acted to appease the so-called "Dark Gods," it turns out that Psyklop's race also had advanced to the point of ruling the Earth in ancient times.

And let's not forget about the Undying Ones, who ruled the Earth for "unnumbered ages" under the control of their master, the Nameless One:

Earth also fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the vanguard of a race which ruled the Earth for an indeterminate length of time until they were vanquished in a 100-year war by another race that presumably took their place as the planet's rulers.

(That's a lot of mushroom clouds going off on ancient Earth. You would think one of them would be noted in a scroll or two somewhere.)

Which brings us to the last of our tyrannical abominations, this one eventually slithering its way into New York City:

Before ripping into present-day Times Square, however, Shuma-Gorath was lording it over prehistoric man, before the time traveler known as Sise-Neg dealt it a setback.

It's a wonder that you and I are even here to talk about all of this, given the number of times the human race has been decimated by those creatures who held our species collectively under their thumb (or what passed for a thumb) over the ages. It's also a testament to the resiliency of the Earth itself, having weathered cataclysm after cataclysm and no doubt giving Gaea cause to yearn for a long vacation. Somehow the Inhumans, who were present during prehistoric times, managed to isolate themselves from these conflicts, when you'd think their advanced race would have been a prime target for the Deviants and most of the others listed here (we could say the same for the Eternals); surely their historical records would have complete accounts of global conflicts which occurred on the scale of what we've only seen here in glimpses.  Then again, perhaps we humans are better off not fully knowing the grim travails suffered by our unfortunate ancestors.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Childhood, Interrupted

For a while during the 1970s and into the '80s, it seemed the odds were going to be stacked against Franklin Richards, the son of Sue and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, no matter how many readers might have been pulling for him even going back to the difficult circumstances of his birth. As if his life weren't going to be harrowing enough being the vulnerable child of a couple who had difficulty protecting him from the frequent dangers they faced with their team, there were his mutant abilities to contend with--powers that were both unpredictable as to their emergence and potentially dangerous to the entire world should they be fully unleashed. Such a crisis arrived in late 1973, when his father was forced to "shut down" his son's mind by use of a defective anti-matter weapon before disaster occurred (which, if you were to ask anyone who witnessed the scene, surely qualified as a disaster in itself), an incident that led to all the members of the FF separating for a time until reconciliation between Reed and Sue eventually took place.

If we backtrack a bit to the point when Franklin was still a toddler, we see that whatever ambivalence either Stan Lee or Roy Thomas felt in terms of what direction to take Franklin in ceased when writer Gerry Conway began his run on Fantastic Four and began laying that decision's groundwork in mid-1973, shortly after Reed and Sue separated following the FF's battle with the new Frightful Four. Sue, with Franklin, retreats to a farm owned by friends in Pennsylvania--and we glimpse a portent of things to come.

It's later that year when Annihilus's tampering with Franklin's power leads to Reed's desperate action, after which Franklin fell into a coma--a condition that lasts for just over a year until another crisis, in the form of the return of Ultron, serves as the catalyst that returns Franklin to consciousness, and normalcy.

It's an ending to the situation virtually wrapped up with a bow, given that Conway leaves the FF title shortly thereafter. Roy Thomas, taking the reins of the book from that point, seems content to leave well enough alone vis-à-vis Franklin, when he touches base on the subject in 1976:

(As we know in hindsight, Sue's traumatic encounter with Psycho-Man nine years later would have her dispensing with her objections here to updating her FF name.)

Thomas's sentiments are not at all shared by Marv Wolfman in the 1980 FF Annual, however, as we see Franklin's abilities re-emerge during a conflict with Nicholas Scratch and Salem's Seven.

From that point, Reed and Sue appear resolved to the fact that Franklin's powers are still present and warrant keeping an eye on, though they essentially leave it at that while making sure they're there for him as loving parents while keeping a watch-and-wait attitude. (Under the circumstances, I might have sought out consultation from Charles Xavier, but what do I know.)

During Doug Moench's time on the book in 1980, passing reference is made to Franklin's still-dormant power, though mostly as a lead-in to another conflict with Scratch:

Nearly two years later, artist/writer John Byrne sees an opportunity to open the door a little further and again bring to the fore concerns about Franklin's mysterious power. And while not having the scope of Conway's treatment on the subject, Byrne's self-contained crisis here serves as an example of how to craft a dramatic story involving the power of Franklin Richards without necessitating that a future writer take it into account. Turning the page, we find such a story suitably beginning with Franklin's parents, still keeping a watchful eye on their son but preferring not to wait until a sudden development that might prove harmful but instead taking precautionary measures. And while Reed is no Charles Xavier, his own methods prove to be uniquely suited to both his inventiveness and the care of his son.

Though Reed may have been hasty to label this unit as a babysitter, considering that finding a traditional babysitter is still a concern when everyone heads out for the evening. Fortunately, no human sitter is present for what occurs next.

We can only wonder what Wally and the Beav would do in this situation.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

"The Final Victory Of Dr. Doom!"

With the successful launch of the first Fantastic Four annual in 1963, FF readers were no doubt looking forward to seeing Marvel deliver on another annual the following year. Needless to say, the company did just that, this time featuring a foe that had become one of the book's most popular characters--Dr. Doom, having appeared in six out of thirty issues thus far (as well as an issue of Amazing Spider-Man) and who had informally been elevated to the status of the FF's de facto arch-nemesis.

The '64 annual has a number of things going for it in terms of content (which includes additions to the Fantastic Four rogues gallery), not the least of which is significantly expanding on Doom's character and providing him with more depth than that of the standard two-dimensional villain we'd seen thus far whose main draw was as a rival to the brilliance of Reed Richards. In fact, readers had the opportunity in this issue to observe the contrast in Doom's evolution for themselves, since for the annual to reach its advertised length of 72 pages it was necessary to supplement its 48 pages of new material with filler--in this case, a reprint of Fantastic Four #5, "Prisoners of Doctor Doom!", a story that introduced Doom to the title as little more than a "sinister genius," and villainy and only villainy appears to compel him. Leading off the annual, however, is a prelude to the main FF tale in the form of Doom's origin story, where Doom is given a rich history full of tragedy, mystery, royal bearing, and ominous foreshadowing (as opposed to the abridged version of his origin appearing in the aforementioned issue #5). Add to that his continued dealings with the Fantastic Four and his drive to achieve world domination, and this armored "menace" transforms before our eyes into a complicated figure whose madness and cruelty are always on a hair trigger.

There are a number of takeaways from Doom's origin which will be familiar sights to a number of you and which serve to encompass the new "Victor Von Doom" we meet here. A boy shaped by the hardships of himself and his people and the tragic loss of his parents... the young man who met Reed Richards as a fellow student at State University... the broken man created from an experiment gone wrong... a journey to the mountains of Tibet where he would meet his destiny... the observance of a lonely, solemn ritual to his mother's grave.

As we've seen, the backdrop of the story also contains an intriguing addition to Doom's profile: the fact that he rules the small kingdom of Latveria nestled in the Bavarian alps in Germany, information that the FF remain unaware of but which they'll discover in the annual's main story.

But while this annual's cover adds to the "Doom looms" series of issue covers and focuses the spotlight on their armored foe, it wouldn't be an FF annual without the Fantastic Four taking front and center on their own splash page (albeit in an embarrassing situation)--yet even so, you'd almost expect Dr. Doom to insinuate himself onto page one, wouldn't you?

As in other instances where the team's Fantasti-Car has demonstrated a knack for suddenly finding itself in a crash scenario, the FF somehow make it out of this situation intact (though we'd see that the Thing isn't exactly the most ideal member to placate their fellow New Yorkers). But once the four have extricated themselves from the regrettable situation and made tracks for their headquarters, the story refocuses our attention once more on Doom, who finds himself being rescued from almost certain death following his last encounter with the team and compelled to take part in a momentous meeting.

And so, returning to Earth, and making his way to the Latverian embassy in New York, Doom begins a covert scheme which he believes will secure him the victory he craves--which may well succeed, as it depends on continuing to keep the FF in the dark as to his status as a monarch. Curiously, however, his plan involves drugging his foes and having them attack each other, based on hallucinations that have them thinking the worst of one another--not the approach you'd expect from a man you'd think would want to crush the FF personally, but perhaps a plan he can rationalize by chalking its success up to his genius.

Granted, it's a flimsy plan for someone of Doom's caliber to conceive--banking so much on the assumption that the members of the FF will destroy each other because of little more than bruised feelings (with Reed not even under the drug's influence).

Yet on the verge of Doom's "triumph" here, he unknowingly sabotages his own plan by obsessing once more with memories he's struggled to keep buried, and which give him a sense of futility in pursuing plans of conquest when his iron mask must remain in place forever in order to conceal his disfigurement. But even Dr. Doom can find himself vulnerable to hope, much to his regret.

His plan undone, and getting a grip on himself, Doom withdraws and turns to a more aggressive posture in battling his enemies--arrogantly challenging them in their own headquarters, and a fight to the finish!