Thursday, May 30, 2013

Multiple Mistreatment

At first glance, it probably seems like the Fantastic Four are beset by enemies here:

But would you believe it's the FF who are piling on?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Blinded By Rage

By the time the Sub-Mariner series ended in September, 1974 (though as The Savage Sub-Mariner for the past year), the book was arguably on its last legs. The spike in readership which Namor's dramatic costume change had been meant to usher in hadn't materialized, and the book went to bi-monthly publication directly afterward. Also, artist/writer Bill Everett, who had come back aboard and given the series something of a new lease on life in 1972, had passed away in early 1973, resulting in the book shifting in writers and artists as it tried to find stability. Even Atlantis, which Namor had finally returned to, had for all intents and purposes been removed from the book, its population victims of exposure to nerve gas (or of the editorial change in direction, take your pick); and from then on, Namor spent much of his time following leads that would hopefully result in a cure and restore his people.

But time had run out for Namor, and Marvel pulled the plug on The Savage Sub-Mariner with issue #72. Not unexpectedly, the cover of its final issue was as sensationalized as prior issues which sought to coax readers:

For instance, the creature attacking Namor wasn't called the "Slime-Thing"; in fact, it never spoke a word, much less gave itself a name (and a self-degrading one at that). Nor were the men at the waterfront armed. And as for the fate of the "two worlds" of Atlantis and the surface world being at stake--or even relevant--nothing could be further from the truth, as the fights taking place in the issue were strictly personal.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Matter of Life Or Death

There are times when I think it would have been cool to work in the Marvel offices during the late '60s, if only to glimpse the occasional looks of pride a writer and artist team on a book likely exchanged when finishing a truly exceptional piece of work and getting that issue hot off the press, holding it in their hands for the first time and seeing the finished product. Such times must have been gratifying--the creative rush that hits at that moment and makes it clear to them why they got into this business in the first place. I can only imagine such a moment was experienced by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Sam Grainger, et al. after completion of the three-part story running through Avengers #s 69-71--not necessarily a grand epic by today's terms, but a good, solid story and a damn fine piece of work all around.

The Avengers are usually at their best in high stakes situations, though it's understandable you wouldn't want a steady diet of such stories. Yet around this time, the tone of Avengers stories would be cranked up to have the team facing off against a number of crises which would necessitate all hands being on board to meet the threats. This particular story comes on the heels of a face-off with Ultron that threatened nuclear holocaust and was entitled, "...And We Battle For The Earth!", so the Avengers immediately go out of the fire and into the frying pan, so to speak, in a conflict involving Kang the Conqueror, the alien Grand-Master, and a bizarre contest that threatened the destruction of the Earth in 4000 A.D. But though Kang doesn't exactly come up short in the maniacal or ruthless departments, he's no Ultron--in the sense that Kang can offer more fascinating interaction with the Avengers, if disdainfully.

And in that spirit, this story puts the shoe on the other foot in terms of Kang being the one to issue ultimatums or threats. For while in anguish over the state of Ravonna, a princess he fell in love with but who hovers between life and death, Kang suddenly finds his own Earth threatened by the Grand-Master, who offers him a deadly but irresistible bargain:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Out Of Action, Out Of The Question

It just wouldn't do to have a Marvel hero out of action for very long with a broken arm or leg--which is probably why we don't often see many of them on the mend from such an injury. When we do, it seems their road to recovery is a short one. Even in the days before everyone and his mother had a "healing factor" of some kind (boy, isn't that a convenient phrase somebody thought up--I think Chris Claremont opened those floodgates, didn't he?), heroes were in and out of slings and crutches in short order.

Spider-Man, who in his early days was probably the poster boy for being under the weather, may have had to deal with his arm injury the longest while still in costume, though I'm surprised that a guy who travels by shooting and swinging on webs would think that he'd be able to do that with one arm, no prob. We can thank his battle with the Lizard for putting his arm out of action--because we discovered that, unlike cats, guys with spider-powers don't always land gracefully:

So Spider-Man slings up, but attempts to battle on for a few more issues. His foes, of course, don't give him a pass for being on the injured list:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Now and Forever--Phoenix

Here's another interesting back-up story that I came across, which appeared in an issue of Classic X-Men, a series which recycled prior X-Men stories with bits and pieces of new artwork and story material. Eventually, the series got around to the Dark Phoenix storyline, and reprinted the finale in its entirety--along with a story that catches Jean/Phoenix the instant after she's disintegrated by the alien weapon on the moon.

"Flights of Angels," written by Chris Claremont, is both epilogue and prologue--the former being obvious, as Jean is trying to find answers as to where she is and what exactly has happened to her. And it's a curious tale, indeed. Written well after Jean joined X-Factor and the truth revealed that the Phoenix entity made itself to be a replica of Jean while the original was kept in stasis, the story nevertheless plays out as if this person were the real Jean Grey and had indeed sacrificed her life to save her friends as well as the universe, as readers initially were led to believe. But while she's getting her bearings (or trying to), she's distracted by a construction worker who enlists her help in erecting a building in the middle of space.

Instead, she makes a small-scale replica of the finished building, which takes her through a recap of her time as Dark Phoenix--only this time, she exists in the form of victims of her rampage. First, as one of the people of D'Bari:

And then as an ensign about the Shi'ar ship that she decimated:

It's then she reasons that her builder/companion is Death itself, who speaks of the Phoenix as a separate force that Jean called out for and willingly bonded with, because it was a force she herself gave form to:

And once Jean accepts her lot, she fully embraces her status as Phoenix and begins life anew.

It's a confusing resolution, given that the last page of the story acknowledges the existence of Jean's underwater cocoon as well as the events of Inferno. Frankly, I don't know what to make of it. If we're to believe Death, then this is indeed Jean, not Phoenix taking on Jean's form--and Jean has embraced the force she was apparently meant to join with, and cast herself out into the universe. The other assumption to make would be that the Phoenix force still believes itself to be Jean, and Death is playing along with that illusion because this young life form (Death even calls it a "baby Phoenix" at one point) has to find its own way and learn the truth in its own time; but if so, it's done the Phoenix no favors in that respect, since it's made such an effort to perpetuate the false impression that the Phoenix is under. One might assume that Death is self-serving enough to lead this ultimate incarnation of Life down a trail of falsity in order to negate its influence and power--yet the tone of the story seems to imply that Death is simply guiding the Phoenix into the next phase of its existence, and nothing more.

I suppose at some point I'll have to re-read the "Phoenix Endsong" and "Phoenix Warsong" stories and see if they help to connect the dots--but the story of the Phoenix has become so convoluted over time that I honestly don't believe there's any sense to be made of it vis-à-vis Jean Grey, or Madelyne Pryor, or Rachel Summers, or Cyclops (have I missed anyone?). Show of hands: how many of you believe that Marvel should have left well enough alone, with Jean/Phoenix sacrificing herself on the moon? Because whenever the Phoenix finds its way into a story nowadays, don't you find yourself at this point making a massive eye-roll?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Switch Hitters

Man, you know you're a successful super-team when your foes keep sending facsimiles of yourselves against you.

The good news is that there's a tried-and-true tactic you can use against facsimiles that seems to work every time:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Use That Power To Help Mankind

There have been one or two posts I've made where I've taken a look at the instances where various heroes have called it quits--so I thought it might be interesting to bookend those posts with the flip side of the coin, and have a look at the times when some of them have reaffirmed their dedication to their calling, with renewed strength and commitment. Those issues are generally timed pretty well, and they end up giving a nice shot in the arm to their respective titles--full steam ahead and all that, beginning a new chapter for not just the hero(es) but also the readers.

Spider-Man, for instance, has had his share of times when he's felt like throwing in the towel. The super-hero life was an uphill battle for him, mostly due to the incessant and inexplicable fanning of public opinion against him by newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. But a good swift kick by his Uncle Ben from beyond the grave can usually make him come to his senses when he's on the verge of hanging up the web shooters:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It Does Not Compute--It Kills

If you were stunned to see the 1978 Fantastic Four animated series launch with a diminutive robot replacing the Human Torch on the team, think of the double-take comics readers probably did at seeing the cover of Fantastic Four #209 in 1979, which introduced a new character in the book:

And the Thing may very well have summed up reaction to the development:

Nevertheless, "H.E.R.B.I.E." was now a part of FF continuity:

Friday, May 17, 2013

To Boldly Pave The Way

Now that Trek film lore has been reset to begin again the early voyages of the Enterprise under the command of Cadet Captain Kirk, this might be a good time to have a look at a 1997-98 comic book series that filled a niche for those of us who hadn't seen nearly enough of Captain Christopher Pike during his one-episode appearance in the franchise:

Star Trek Early Voyages, written by Dan Agnett and Ian Edginton, features stories with the crew of the Enterprise we met in "The Cage," the pilot episode of Star Trek where Pike and his crew respond to a fake distress call sent from the planet Talos IV. The comics, of course, are no substitute for the characterization a television series might give these people--but in the comic, enough bases are covered in that respect (if perfunctorily) to steadily fill in their blanks. And actually, for a comic book with battles to fight and a quota of blam-blam to deliver, you'll be reasonably satisfied with the time spent on the variety of characters in the book--as opposed to the television episode, where we really only saw meaningful interaction between Pike and Dr. Boyce.

In addition, particularly with some of the elements of Pike's adventures we're already familiar with, the art by Patrick Zircher (who drew most of the series) blends well with the new material and offers some intriguing and at times gratifying looks at scenes with Pike and his crew:

The series came to an abrupt halt after issue #17, leaving readers with one hell of a cliffhanger and no small amount of disappointment at seeing these voyages end, just as we were enjoying the ride. If you never got to read these comics, you can find them collected in this Omnibus that packs them into a hefty 436 pages. Just remember--when you get to the final page and you realize there's no more coming, don't phaser the messenger!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Enter, and Exit--Madame MacEvil!

What's this!? Another clash of titans??

But come on--we know there's only one titan in this story we're interested in:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kill Them With Kindness

It's too early for me to be thinking about retirement, but when the time comes I've decided I want one of these:

Nanny was really just a wickedly inventive tool of Magneto's to sustain the X-Men's basic hygienic and nutritional needs while he held them captive at his Antarctic base:

But he really should be giving some thought to mass-producing them for consumers. Aside from all the housecleaning chores Nanny could take care of for you while she's rolling around the house (come on, don't you just hate moving stuff around to dust?), look at how hands-on she is:

Of course we'd have to do something about that honey-marshmallow voice. I was thinking something along the lines of Elaine Stritch.

Nanny is also more enviro-friendly than something like H.E.R.B.I.E., with all of that jet exhaust it expends flying around--and she's obviously more mobile than "Roberta," the FF's stationary receptionist. I think Magneto has himself a winner here.

Though the X-Men apparently beg to differ.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Titans Two!

It's no small task to try to follow up on the first all-out Hulk/Sub-Mariner clash that we saw at the close of the Tales To Astonish series--written by Stan Lee, pencilled by Marie Severin, and inked by the late, great Dan Adkins. But eighteen issues into the Hulk's solo title, Lee attempts to bring these two together again to slug it out in "A Clash of Titans," a phrase which would endure and serve to apply to future battles between those Marvel characters that fans most wanted to see in battle and give no quarter in a cover-to-cover fight.

With this second fight, though, Lee dilutes the action by reinventing the wheel to a certain extent with some of the elements of the first fight--with the exceptions that this time, the Hulk isn't taken over and forced to engage Namor, nor does the fight take place in a busy city amongst startled (and no doubt fearful) onlookers. In fact, the revised circumstances for the most part are sensible: the lady Dorma comes across an unconscious man floating in the ocean, and takes him to Atlantis to recover while also hoping the act will help to facilitate peace between Atlantis and the surface world. The man, of course, is Bruce Banner, whom she doesn't recognize (nor should she).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fast Track To Nowhere


Name This Marvel Villain??

When Tavi Strikes!

Don't tell me you don't remember Fangor??

In early 1973, Jim Starlin collaborated with scripters Mike Friedrich and Steve Gerber to produce a couple of back-to-back issues of Iron Man that came at a time when the book wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, with the Golden Avenger battling foes like Raga (the Son of Fire, of course--come on, he's a legend!), Princess Python, a scythe-wielding offshoot of the Super Adaptoid, et al. Starlin's work didn't necessarily indicate a course correction for Friedrich's aimless plots and treatment of the character (a point which a later arc with the Black Lama and his meandering "War of the Super-Villains" would drive home), but it did make for an interesting diversion. At that point, I had seen little if any of Starlin's work, and his interpretation of Iron Man--of any character--was clearly something new and innovative.

Friedrich would script Starlin's first issue, which of course had the distinction of introducing Thanos to the Marvel universe. And with Gerber scripting the second, we could be assured that Iron Man and ourselves would be taking a journey through the offbeat. Starting with this guy:

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Victory and the Vanquished

I haven't done a head count of the Marvel characters who have been in Hell and gone toe-to-toe with Satan, which is probably the ultimate confrontation in comics--depending on the character, that is. For instance, the Silver Surfer has had many confrontations with Mephisto in his realm, and Thor as well as the Fantastic Four have gone up against him. But Mephisto doesn't really "count" in this sense, probably because he plays "Satan" as more of a raving villain than the being we're more familiar with who fell from Heaven. Mephisto has all the trappings of Satan, and he certainly doesn't want for cruelty or sadism or temptation--yet Marvel has taken great pains to make him a separate entity, a being who takes a more active part in the affairs of mortals in general and super-beings in particular. We know what we're getting when we take a trip to Mephisto's realm; but Satan hasn't been as overplayed.

Still, you wouldn't want to see just anyone cast down to Hell and facing Satan. Satan, then, becomes just another comic book character. Spider-Man vs. Satan would be a joke. Ditto for Daredevil, or the X-Men, or even the Surfer or Thor. What do we care if Satan confronts Spider-Man? The first thought that would come to mind is, why the *ahem* hell would Satan bother with Spider-Man? Are we interested in seeing the Human Torch battle "fire with fire"? Would the Hulk be able to knock out the devil?

So in order to keep his credibility intact, the best we can hope for as far as characters pitting themselves against Satan is a short list. And in the late 1970s, I think a lot of us sat up in our chairs at seeing these two make that list:

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Seasons Of The Witch

"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."  -- John Lennon

There are few comics character histories more entangled than that of Wanda, better known as the Scarlet Witch. Even with that one sentence we run into a problem, because I can't even give you her last name. Her family history is entangled. Her powers are entangled. Her marital status is entangled. Her involvement with other-dimensional beings is entangled. For someone who can alter reality itself, you'd think Wanda could streamline her own existence.

Let's start with her parentage. One thing seems clear--she's the daughter of Magda, who, fearful of her husband Magneto's power, fled to Wundagore Mountain where she took her pregnancy to term and delivered twins--Wanda and her brother, Pietro. No, I can't give you Magda's last name either--probably because I'm not even sure of Magneto's. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure of Magneto's first name. At least we know it's not "Magneto." I think his first name is Magnus, though he's also been called Erik Lehnsherr. Magda, Magneto, Magnus--see how entangled we already are? Why isn't Wanda named something like "Magenta," just to make our day complete? She could be Maggie, the Magenta Witch. Aren't you glad I'm not on staff at Marvel.

So I guess Wanda doesn't really have a last name, though that surely didn't stop Marvel from trying to give her one. First we were told that she was the daughter of Golden Age heroes Bob and Madeline Frank (who became irradiated during a nuclear accident)--ergo, Wanda Frank. Then, discovering that origin was false, Wanda and Pietro travelled to Europe and discovered that they were raised as the children of a gypsy couple, the Maximoffs. So now she's Wanda Maximoff, for what it's worth. Finally, their father is revealed as Magneto. I'm guessing there are times when Wanda hopes that, too, is in error--after all, her first name doesn't begin with "Mag."

As for her powers--ye gods. Hex power. Organic power. Reality-altering power. Chaos magic. Reality-altering power again. It's going to take someone braver than I to detail this woman's power variations and levels. But I'll try to give a quick rundown. We know she started out with "hex power," which went through fluctuations and alterations during her early association with the Avengers. Then Agatha Harkness came calling and offered tutelage in joining Wanda's mutant power with actual magic, and she mainly became able to control and manipulate organic matter as well as draw on herself for extended stamina. That eventually led to her encounter with the demon Chthon, who had given her latent magical potential at birth in order to later use her as a vessel to escape his imprisonment, and who turned out to be responsible for her hex power at times losing its potency or conking out altogether.

Chthon as well as Immortus would both end up manipulating Wanda's life as well as her power over time for their own ends. And it's with Immortus where we pick up on Wanda's mood swings, which ultimately led to Wanda's transformation into--well, let's let Immortus make her intro for us:

Well, no, Immortus--you wish. More accurately, Immortus has manipulated Wanda over time so that she's now, more or less, a high-powered battery for a trio of time-beings he's made a bargain with. In return, he's granted rule of seven millennia. Wanda, it turns out, is a nexus being, which Immortus again explains for us:

Sheesh, there he goes again. What Immortus meant to say is that Wanda's new level of power will safeguard and control those futures for the time-beings whom Immortus bargained with. He's just dramatizing a bit. Immortus, as you can tell, badly wants to be the "Master of Time!" in fact as well as in name, but in this case his reach exceeds the grasp that the time-beings are allowing him.

As to how Immortus has manipulated Wanda's life, just look at all the things he's been responsible for, directly or indirectly:

As to her new level of power that she's attained, does any of this sound familiar to you?

Exactly. But in this case, the reality-altering power was, as Agatha Harkness puts it, "unnaturally bred" into Wanda by the various traumas she suffered through Immortus' machinations--not the result of the "life force" she was later infused with through her efforts with Dr. Doom to recover her children, the force which ultimately possessed her. By contrast, in the latter case Wanda was stricken with disillusionment and grief--whereas through Immortus' prodding, her disposition here was more on the vicious side:

With the Avengers on the ropes as they finally confronted Immortus, it fell to Agatha Harkness to get through to Wanda in her entranced state and implore her to reject her new power. And after repeated appeals to Wanda's love for her friends and teammates, she was finally successful:

And so Wanda's power goes back to status quo, more or less--until her chaos magic manifests later, and all hell breaks loose.  In retrospect, that later story could probably have proceeded without any "life force" to blame Wanda's state of mind on, since it's hard to believe she could just snap back to normal here when taking into account all the things she's suffered through.  Those events might have been set into motion by Immortus, but they weren't illusion or a dream state--Wanda lived through them in the natural course of her life.  But it seems to be Marvel policy that for a hero such as Wanda to continue being a hero, she would either have to suffer the consequences of her actions or else proven not to have been responsible for them.  And so the "life force" as deus ex machina.

But couldn't she have kept that cool new costume?