Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Precioussssss

Comic book matchups that had you scratching your head--
but still made you curious about how the fight would turn out.

Welcome to another installment in a series of posts we could only call:

I haven't yet read Sean Howe's book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, so I'm not really clear on the mechanics of how a story at Marvel gets pitched or by whom, or if one is simply assigned to a book's resident writer. But let's say for the sake of argument that it's the writer who charts the book's direction (or at least contributes to it), and the editor then signs off on the story idea which the writer then works out with the artist. I'm sure that's way over-simplifying it, but let's stick with that for now.

So this is how I would imagine this story's concept being proposed by the writer of Invincible Iron Man at the time, Mike Friedrich, to editor Roy Thomas:
MF: I'd like to have Iron Man battle Princess Python.
RT: ...
MF: Roy?
RT: The snake charmer?
MF: Yeah!
RT: But--she doesn't have any powers. She just has her pet python.
MF: Um hmm, I know.
RT: So it'll basically be Iron Man vs. a python.
MF: And Princess Python, yeah.
RT: Iron Man. Pitting his armored might against a python.
MF: I can make it work, seriously! Think of it--Princess Python, going up against Iron Man!
I have to assume that Thomas had to take an important call at that moment and put this meeting on the back burner, because somehow this premise made it into production and appeared in Iron Man #50. Fifty issues of Iron Man, and we find him going up against foes like Princess Python. Whether you can count Iron Man to be a successful title at this point is a matter of perspective, I guess.

At any rate, let's do a fast-forward and show you the only climax we can expect from a threat to Iron Man by the Princess's python:

Except that the python is doing its best to crush Iron Man's armor--but unless that armor is crinkling, or bending, or weakening in any way (and it isn't), the man inside that armor isn't being crushed one bit. Not even tickled. And since it wouldn't do Iron Man's rep any good in villain circles if word got around that a python had the strength to damage his armor, we can assume that his armor weathered this "attack" with flying colors.

So that takes care of the python. What about any threat Princess Python brings to the table? Well, since she's usually operated with the Ringmaster's Circus of Crime, and since that was just a group of thieves, she's not about to change her stripes now. And since a ransom demand for the safe return of Tony Stark would represent a lot of money for her, she snatches him during an interview:

However, while Iron Man may have a problem with breaking a python's grip, it seems to be a snap for Tony Stark:

And after Stark ducks into some bushes and changes to Iron Man, the battle we've all been waiting for is finally joined. At least Princess Python has an idea of who is outmatched in this fight:

Give the Princess her props--she was putting "my precious" into circulation long before Gollum made it to the screen. And speaking of circulation, Iron Man is still afraid of losing his because he thinks his armor isn't strong enough to withstand a python's attack:

Tell me I didn't just hear Iron Man conclude that he'd need to use "all his strength" to free himself from this python's grip. At least we know that if Iron Man ever turns bad, all the military would have to do is send two or three trained pythons against him. I could even name the perfect Princess to head the task force.

After a brief accidental bath in some rocket fuel compounds, the python is rendered immune to Iron Man's repulsor blasts. And so the Princess sics it on him again, while Iron Man is hovering over a vat of acid--which brings us back to our beginning scene above. Now, as far as I can tell, there's no part of this snake that's affecting Iron Man's boot jets, so his life isn't in danger. But you'd never know it by how Iron Man makes an ultimate effort to triumph over this python, as if time were of the essence:

Wow, Iron Man has "conquered" a python.  I can see the ticker tape parades already.  Anyway, the python isn't equipped with boot jets, and we do have a vat of acid waiting below, so:

But Iron Man manages to save the Princess, and promises to get her some psychiatric care. Gosh, where will those doctors start? Her criminal history? Her fixation on large deadly snakes? But I know the big question that has to be on everyone's mind: hasn't Princess Python more than proven her ability to take the place of the Mandarin as Iron Man's arch enemy? Assuming she can lay her hands on another python.  Iron Man's other enemies may want one of their very own.

Black Widow

Name This Marvel Villain??

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eric The Dead

With this post, I do believe our retrospective on the Grim Reaper will finally reach, you'll excuse the expression, a dead end. Not that he doesn't cause more mischief down the road in other titles; it's just that it's becoming apparent to me with this latest appearance that Marvel is now beating a dead horse where the Reaper is concerned. I mean, what does it take to put this guy six feet under and keep him there? And how many wince-worthy "dead" references can I make at his expense?

So I come not to praise the Reaper, but to bury him. Or at least try to.

Once the Reaper perished after experiencing "life" as a zombie at the hands of his lover, Nekra, it seemed like there was no more to be gained by further reanimation of him. The Reaper had already come to terms with the twin existence of the Vision and his brother, Simon Williams; unfortunately, when Nekra raised him from the dead, all that he had learned and resolved had been wiped from his memory. At the end of that story, the Reaper--discovering his true state as a zombie--ended his living-dead existence by his own will, choosing the final death over being a walking corpse.

With this next story, Nekra is once again responsible for resurrecting Eric Williams, though with a couple of twists. First, he's completely free from being commanded by the Black Talon or any other such voodoo priest; but on the down side, Nekra's spell requires that he absorb a human life every 24 hours in order to remain among the living (if you can call it that).

But guess whose life he shockingly takes first?

Afterward, the Reaper begins a gruesome ritual of absorbing one life after another--eventually targeting Wonder Man, who finds that his brother has been reduced to mocking whatever familial feelings once existed between them. Yet the Reaper finds that his power has the opposite effect when coming into contact with the ionic form of his brother--whatever life energy he has absorbed is instead drained from him, leaving him in a weakened state and forced to retreat. When the two meet up again, they're unexpectedly joined by Nekra's brother, the Mandrill, who has tracked the Reaper and intends to exact revenge for his sister's murder. But the Mandrill doesn't possess Wonder Man's immunity to the Reaper's power, and subsequently falls to the Reaper's life-draining scythe:

It seems like a pointless diversion. Do you care at all about the Mandrill? Join the club.

The story then deals the Reaper into a plot by Ultron-13, who has decided to chuck his plan to annihilate humans and instead having them unknowingly exposed to a spray which will turn them into metal automatons, which he can then link up with and command:

But when the Reaper stumbles upon Ultron's lair where he's holding three Avengers, he adds one-plus-one when he overhears Ultron's plan and gets a very alarming two:

Yet instead of attacking Ultron, the Reaper only confronts him--and in doing so, a strange alliance is formed. First, Ultron takes the opportunity to permanently fuse the Reaper's scythe to his arm; then, he offers the Reaper the opportunity to serve him, which the Reaper inexplicably accepts. It's a head-scratching scene, considering that both of these beings has more to lose in this alliance than to gain. Ultron has discovered the Reaper can slash even his indestructible body; and the Reaper is in danger of losing his only means of survival if Ultron succeeds in turning all of humanity into metal beings. In fact, when Ultron mentions that very point to the Reaper, he brushes off his predicament in a way meant to change the subject.

But when the Reaper next confronts his brother, Wonder Man, his plans become more clear:

And caught between a rock and a hard place, and with Ultron poised to attack the imminent Rose Parade and convert all of the humans in attendance, Simon gives his answer:

So let's cut to the chase, where Wonder Man and the Reaper attack Ultron as he hovers over the parade route. The Reaper begins to make short work of Ultron, finding that Ultron's conversion process has let him absorb enough human life energy to make him vulnerable to the Reaper's scythe. When it appears the Reaper has won, Wonder Man then breaks his word to Eric and attacks. Now, you'd think Wonder Man could wipe the floor with a zombie, especially one who can't use his primary weapon on him because bringing it into contact with his ionic brother severely weakens him. So please explain to me how the Reaper, with no more strength than the average person, can proceed to beat the invulnerable Wonder Man to a pulp in hand-to-hand combat:

At that point, both the Avengers and Ultron intervene, eventually resulting in a collision between Ultron and the Reaper which incapacitates them both.

And the Grim Reaper no doubt will "live" to fight another day. But I'm afraid you're on your own as far as reading about his further exploits. For me, whatever interest I had in the Grim Reaper ended here. His motivations vis-à-vis his brother Simon really came to an end when he jumped to his death; though, really, the Grim Reaper as a character has a much more fitting ending at the trial he concocts, where he comes to know the reality of Simon's existence yet cannot put aside his enmity for the Vision. At that point, his main reason for coming after the Avengers is rendered moot, at least on a personal level--and what came next with his mad plan to create a "new" brother was more follow-up on this issue than was really needed. Now the Reaper is just a ghoul--with Wonder Man the only one keeping the "brothers" aspect of the story alive in any sense, since the Reaper in his present form has no remaining feelings of family ties whatsoever. Now that Marvel is rebooting all over the place, perhaps the Grim Reaper can have a second life--but his first one has more than played itself out.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hail and Farewell

I think I've mentioned once or twice before how the original Defenders group could realistically have only a short shelf life--that it could only be a matter of time before these three individuals would have to part company and return to their very separate lives. With the informal addition of the Silver Surfer, any hope that they could make a lasting commitment to band together seemed to become even more unlikely.

Yet if there was ever any one issue of The Defenders which could convince me otherwise--that Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner could indeed make a go of operating (if loosely) in common cause--it would surely have to be issue #3, the issue where Dr. Strange is convinced he can free the Surfer from the confines of Earth. The subject is broached after a battle where the Defenders have solved the mystery of how the Surfer was manipulated into abducting the Sub-Mariner in a scheme involving Necrodamus and the Undying Ones:

This one picture of the original Defenders seems as natural as any team formation I've seen in comics. Yet I'd stop far short of formalizing their association as a "team"; if we must put a word to their gathering, perhaps "comrades" would be more descriptive of their decision to band together. No aversion to working together when the situation warrants a joining of forces--yet no wish to make a commitment beyond the immediate need. If a series could be built on that premise, it would surely have to be a limited one.

That said, writer Steve Englehart makes a remarkable effort in these initial issues, though even that exhausts itself during his tenure on the book. That's why the first three issues of The Defenders not only stand out from the entire series, but also stand alongside the ranks of Marvel's other titles in the early 1970s that are giving the company its second wind. And from what Englehart presents us with in these early Defenders stories, we had every indication that this new series would be something unique and memorable.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Less Super Super-Soldier

I'm not sure what writer Steve Englehart's intention was when he gave Captain America super-strength (as a result of being poisoned by the Viper). My impression of those stories was that he initially wanted to highlight the Falcon's characterization by showing how he'd react to Cap's augmented status and how it would affect their crime-fighting partnership. And this one scene should sum that up for you pretty well:

And after the scuffle, when Cap tries to reassure the Falcon, things finally come to a head:

As a result, and with Cap's help, the Falcon hooks up with the Black Panther to see if the Panther's scientific resources can come up with something to augment the Falcon's abilities in order to more balance his standing with Cap. And the Panther delivers:

So that takes care of the Falcon--and the adventures of himself and Cap take on a more balanced feel, as expected. But when artist/writer Jack Kirby takes the reins of Cap's book, he retains some elements of prior storylines but disregards others--an example of the latter being Cap's super-strength, which for all intents and purposes never happened, with Kirby preferring Cap to rely on his own abilities which have served him so well over the years and admittedly made a better "fit" for the character. Yet Kirby not only keeps the Falcon around, but his artificial wings are in full display--wings which would never have come into existence had it not been for Cap's super-strength.

At any rate, shortly after Kirby's run on the book ends, the issue of Cap's absent super-strength is brought up and addressed in a letters page response:

"...what about that extra super-strength Cap gained a couple of years back? Should he keep (regain) it, or do you prefer the 'mere' perfect fighting-machine of an earlier period. Roy, Don, and Sal would truly appreciate hearing from as many Cap-boosters as possible on the subject--and as quickly as possible, too, before they commit themselves either way! We'll try to devote a letters-page in a couple of months (about #221 or thereabouts) [Ed.: four issues away] primarily to comments for and against Cap's super-strength... and who knows? We may even give away a nostalgia-producing no-prize or two!"

A nice bone to throw to readers, if a bit insulting, since it's probably safe to say that the minds of alternating writers Roy Thomas and Don Glut had already been made up.  Because in the very next issue, the matter of Cap's super-strength is quietly disposed of, with just a few tidy words:

At the same time, Cap's partnership with the Falcon was also allowed to fade into the background and was eventually purged from the book entirely, with Falcon accepting an assignment to train SHIELD's "super-agent" team. The book's title was adjusted accordingly--back to simply Captain America--five issues later, after readers were given sufficient time to see and get used to Cap adventuring on his own. Presumably Falcon's exit was made in accordance with new writer Steve Gerber's wish to shake things up in the book, as another helpful letters page response makes clear:

"Steve feels that most of the supporting players in earlier issues of CA&F--Sharon Carter, the Agents of Shield, etc.--have about had their day. He would like to endow the magazine with a new cast of characters, a different type of plotline, and, generally, a whole new look to see it gracefully into the 1980's."

As for Cap's super-strength, I don't recall seeing any of those solicited letters from readers appearing in subsequent letters pages, so we can probably assume that they were pitched into the trash on sight, given how awkward it would have looked to publish them when a decision on the matter had already been made months before.  Nor did it seem that anyone minded that Cap was back to "super-soldier" level in fighting strength, which still made for dynamic fight scenes.  Captain America in my opinion works best in a story when he prevails by his strength of character rather than a punch to the jaw--because getting that punch to connect to the jaw means having Cap overcome the odds being stacked against him, combined with a fighting spirit that's fueled by an innate responsibility to save lives and to do the right thing.  There's a difference between "Captain America prevails" and "Captain America mows down the opposition," and in that respect there's really no need for super-strength in this super-soldier.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Spy Who Served Me

OR: "Pay No Attention To That Butler Behind The Cowl"

It probably goes without saying that, in his capacity as Tony Stark's butler (on permanent loan to the Avengers), Edwin Jarvis was bound to have his share of altercations with super-villains who would infiltrate or otherwise force their way into Avengers Mansion:

And sometimes the Avengers' schedule might interrupt the usual social niceties:

But he probably never expected his own employers to treat him unduly:

Which brings us to a rather shocking

Marvel Trivia Question

What made Jarvis betray the Avengers?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Life Is A State Of Mind*

*from the quotations of Ben Rand, Being There (1979)

Things looked pretty grim for the Grim Reaper the last time we checked in on him, didn't they? I mean, you can't get much grimmer than being impaled on a stalagmite after plummeting to your death. But from his final words in that story, at least we can hopefully conclude that Eric Williams came to terms with his brother Simon's existence, as well as the unique bond that Simon shares with the Vision.

But about that "plummeting to his death" part--he did, honest. But don't try telling that to Nekra, Eric's lover and a disciple of the Black Talon. Discovering Eric's body in the cavern and retreating with it, she wasn't about to let something like death keep from her the only thing she was capable of loving:

Nekra also reanimated the corpse of the man that the Reaper had intended to take Simon's place--Brady Kent, a paid assassin for the Boston mob who apparently was assassinated himself after slipping up on a job. The Reaper's original plan (to sift through the thoughts of the Vision and Wonder Man and then transfer their essence to Kent's mind) had been abandoned; but Nekra needed manpower to take revenge against the Vision, who at this point in time was attending to Wanda while she prepared to give birth.

Neither Kent nor the Reaper were typical shuffling zombies, though, thanks to Nekra's skills which went even beyond the Black Talon's:

Of course, the Reaper was ignorant of his own reanimation at the hands of Nekra. Unfortunately, he'd also forgotten the epiphany he'd experienced regarding Wonder Man and the Vision prior to his suicide, and so still despised each of them for the same reasons. So he and his scythe, along with Kent and his proficiency with firearms, were enough for Nekra to begin her plans of revenge.

In the meantime, Wanda was going into labor at the hospital, with the Vision by her side. On their way to see her were Wonder Man (now dressed in his Christmas-like costume) and a somewhat-reformed Magneto. The story then goes back and forth, between the drama of Wanda's delivery and the fight in the street below between Nekra's group and Wonder Man and Magneto. And when Simon spots a bullet hole in the Reaper's back (from a prior altercation that night--what, stalagmites don't leave any holes?), he realizes why his brother is again walking amongst the living:

And Simon and Eric do the one thing that Nekra doesn't want, for fear of the Reaper learning the truth about his current state--they start to talk:

When Magneto succeeds in taking control of the Reaper's scythe and demonstrating to him with a jab of the tip that his body indeed contains no blood, the Reaper has another epiphany of sorts--this one concerning Nekra:

With her power to hate the only thing maintaining the Reaper's semblance of life, Nekra's loving embrace with him proves to be fatal to Eric, and he collapses. I've no idea why Kent stays up and fighting--though not for long, as Wonder Man and Magneto subdue him easily enough. Then the two go to share the Vison's and Wanda's joy, with the Grim Reaper finally on his way to a bona fide grave.

Which should finally, finally bring this saga of the Grim Reaper's mad revenge to a close, right? How much blood can Marvel expect to squeeze from this stone, anyway?

Come, now. This sneak peek from our next encounter with the Reaper should answer that easily enough:

(Okay, it's probably extremely unlikely that the police wouldn't have removed and taken into custody the Reaper's scythe attachment prior to his being carted off to the mortician.  And Simon surely wouldn't have wanted his brother laid to his final rest in his villain costume.  Let's just say the Reaper rising from the grave renders those points moot, hmm?)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Walk Like An Angel

So. Now that December 21, 2012 has come and passed without incident--and the final item on the list of End Of Days™ dates to beware of has been crossed off, with no other dreaded dates on the calendar remaining for us to cower in despair at--perhaps we can finally stop trembling in our basements and leave scenes like this one in comic books, where they belong:

And we couldn't pick a better time to revisit the story of this particular herald of doomsday, appearing over forty years ago when Fantastic Four #121 told the story of the "Air-Walker"--a mysterious figure who appeared in the skies of the world and crisscrossed the globe, surveying the inhabitants without a word. After a dire warning from Agatha Harkness of the danger he represented, the FF were compelled to investigate, and lured him to their headquarters in New York.

By that time, the Pentagon was also moving to investigate, but then began marshalling its forces when the Air-Walker attacked one of their planes without warning. And when the FF attempted to intervene, they fared no better. Once all opposition had been nullified, it was then that the Air-Walker chose to speak for the first time, making his intentions crystal clear:

When the stranger then announced his name as "Gabriel," and actually blew a horn to signal mankind's end, the frightened masses immediately drew a biblical connection to the "archangel" Gabriel who supposedly signals the "end times" by sounding his horn. Yet this Gabriel remains cryptic as to his origin, and instead focuses on giving ample demonstration that he's not to be trifled with. It's arrogance that the FF isn't yet prepared to accept:

And Gabriel isn't finished yet. Sensing that the fearful crowds want to appease him, he takes advantage of their panic and sics them on the FF, effectively diverting the team's attention from himself. It's only when the foursome head to a television station in a desperate attempt to broadcast a message of hope that Reed learns how Gabriel's announcement and actions have affected the population of the entire world:

So they head back to the Baxter Building to grab their Fantasti-Car in order to take the battle to Gabriel. Though incredibly, Sue--who has faced more world-threatening menaces with the FF than I can count--seems ready to wave the white flag along with the rest of the human race:

Good grief, Sue--how many hopeless situations have you faced in your time with this group? Alone against Klaw or one of the Thinker's deadly androids? Facing off against a cosmic-powered Dr. Doom? Left on your own to deal with the threat of the Over-Mind? And you're ready to throw in the towel just when the FF is getting its second wind? How about a morale boost, for a change, instead of sucking it out of your team like a sponge?

At any rate, the group's efforts meet with little success, because Gabriel seems to have power to spare. Then again, the FF aren't exactly distinguishing themselves as the world's greatest fighting team. Not with battle strategies like this one:

"I might as well land--before it hits us!"?? So--it won't hit you, now that you've landed and become a stationary target? And by the way, wouldn't this be a good time for one of those force fields, Sue? Or maybe turning the Fantasti-Car and its occupants invisible?

Fortunately, the Fantastic Four have friends in high places--very high, as it turns out, as the Silver Surfer enters the fray and proves for all to see that humanity has let its fear blind it to Gabriel's true intentions:

And Gabriel's weakness, it seems, has been hiding--or, rather, flourishing--in plain sight:

The final page of the issue reveals Gabriel's true master, a threat the Earth has faced before and who's also been known to use a herald to warn a world of its end. It was the careful planning of Reed Richards that saved the human race that day, while also allowing us to retain some measure of dignity.  Perhaps we can reclaim some of that ourselves, now that the more fearful among us can replace the dread of an imminent doom with hopefully the optimism of a brighter future.


My Brother, The Zombie

Quite a lot has happened since the Grim Reaper conducted his bizarre little trial to determine in which of two men--Wonder Man or the Vision--the identity of his brother resides. Some 90 issues have gone by, a little over seven years in real time. A new team of Avengers has been established on the U.S. west coast, with Wonder Man one of their charter members. The Vision, due to a complication from a control crystal implanted into his head by Ultron, has attempted a world takeover by infiltrating the planet's computers. And when that situation was resolved, he and the Scarlet Witch left the Avengers to start a life for themselves.

But let's get back to the Vision for a moment, because that nasty control crystal (or rather its deactivation) plays a part in this brotherly triangle with the Grim Reaper and his "two" brothers. As the Vision describes the function of the crystal, we learn that it's also actually inhibited his emotional growth:

And so, at the first opportunity, the Vision renders one of his hands intantigible and reaches into his head to remove the crystal, forever. Once that's done, we have a far more human Vision just ripe for the mini-series The Vision and the Scarlet Witch which writer Steve Englehart has on tap. A Vision who's ready to bottom-line his status:

And who better to put that to the test than the Grim Reaper, who has dogged and mocked the Vision's humanity for awhile now? Because as much as the Vision is at peace with himself since coming into his own, the Reaper is far from being at ease with either the Vision or Wonder Man. When last we left the Reaper, he was ready to execute the Vision because he was convinced that Wonder Man was his brother, Simon--yet, in some cruel jest, not his brother, since the process that made him Wonder Man had mutated him into another form of life. And the Reaper, who has proven to be a bigot, insists on a wholly human brother or nothing.

And so, insane as the Reaper's plans have been thus far, he's about to make another irrational decision in order to return his brother to his side. To that end, he's assembled a motley crew of fellow villains to give him the muscle he needs to capture both the Vision and Wonder Man:

    and, believe it or not, 
  • Ultron-12, who has his own beef with the Vision

Oh, and the Black Talon's zombie army. And get this, they're not called "zuvembies" anymore--finally Marvel gets with the program. Who knows, maybe the "Maggia" will finally be known as the Mafia. A guy can hope.

We learn of the Reaper's operation in stages, since it's revealed in a crossover story occurring in both The Vision and the Scarlet Witch and West Coast Avengers (as it's both the Vision and Wonder Man who are being targeted). And it's the Vision who learns the first part of that plan when the time comes for his capture, by pulling back a tent flap to reveal the key to the Reaper's entire plan:

Eventually, though, we learn all the gruesome details:

Unfortunately, just as the Reaper is about to proceed, he realizes his mistake in capturing the rest of the Avengers along with Simon and the Vision--because when they break free of their confinement (as you knew they would), the Reaper, the Talon, and Nekra are all forced to eventually flee. But the Vision and Simon realize the two of them have to settle this matter once and for all, and so follow the Reaper into the dark caverns where they've been holed up. But before they confront the Reaper, they have some moments to assess recent events--as well as their own relationship as "brothers," made that much stronger by the Vision's freedom from his control crystal. And, well, I guess this is what you would call a meeting of minds:

But we don't want to linger on the mushy stuff. It's time for these two to catch up with the Reaper:

But this scene isn't as predictable as we might think, because we learn an important fact about Simon's and Eric's relationship. Back when Simon owned an electronics company, and Eric worked alongside him, Eric admitted to embezzling money from the company and thereby ultimately ruining the company in court. But we learn it was actually Simon who stole the funds, and remained silent while the blame fell on Eric. And as Eric realizes that only his real brother would have knowledge of those events, he finds his actions toward Simon and the Vision unable to bear:

With stalagmites lining the cavern ground below, make no mistake--Eric Williams, the Grim Reaper, is DEAD.

Just how do you think he's going to feel about that next time?