Sunday, June 16, 2013

Limited Engagements

Welcome to Marvel's late 1980s period, where no Limited Series stone went unturned:

These particular four are only the tip of the iceberg, as the concept went well beyond the '80s, but they give you a good idea of how Marvel was embracing the concept of the "limited series." Supplementing and often offering tie-ins with their regularly published host titles, they perhaps proved to be not only excellent marketing tools but sales successes in their own right. Readers were provided with a nice, compact adventure, knowing exactly when it would be wrapped up and not made to feel like they needed to invest time in the regular title in order to get a sense of what was going on; and since the various series were at times a grab-bag of characters from different titles (a feature the Secret Wars limited series took to the, er, limit), they could broaden their appeal on the rack to a wider range of readership, as well as introduce readers to characters they might not otherwise plop down change to read. Think Marvel Team-Up with more room and scope to work with.

So if Marvel could somehow devote the creative staff necessary to produce limited series on a semi-regular basis, the company could in essence increase its output of "new titles" and thus experience an increase in monthly sales (or at the very least, use the profits to make up for poor sales for any given month), without taking on the risk of sustaining a new regular monthly title featuring a concept or character that failed to catch on (of which I can think of no better example than the New Universe stable of titles, also appearing during this period).

Though you can't help but wonder why a title's annual, "king-size special," having something of a similar concept--a self-contained story using sellable characters in a greater number of pages--often phoned in a story of poor quality, or, even worse, went to press with nothing but reprinted material. If staff came up short with only one story per title per year, how was Marvel going to maintain production of a number of limited series? Annuals were even a better deal for readers, price-wise--and there was only one to buy, vs. an investment of several issues for a limited series. If quality wasn't up to par, limited series would develop a rep that would have readers shunning them across the board.

Yet with the exception of one, I very much enjoyed the series pictured above. Each had its good points; the stories managed to fill out the expanded format decently; and the creative teams, whatever their workloads on their other titles, stepped up to the plate and delivered some excellent product. Let's briefly touch on each.

X-Men and Alpha Flight (2-issue Limited Series)
Chris Claremont, writer; Paul Smith, pencils

Synopsis: Both teams head to a location in northeastern Canada to investigate a powerful mutant presence in the vicinity, as well as the disappearance of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor.

The focal point of the story (a group of individuals, including Cyclops and Madelyne, transformed by a powerful "fountain" into higher forms of mutants whose abilities can potentially change the world for the better) takes two large story segments to get around to the eventual "at what cost?" issues involved--but Claremont stuffs both parts with enough characterization to weigh down a truck, so it's a good read all-around (and a quality stand-alone X-Men story). For those of us who were fans of the Scott/Madelyne pairing, there's plenty of their interaction in this story, including the revelation that Madelyne is pregnant with their son; and if you're fans of Alpha Flight (all two of you), you'll find Claremont gives them more than adequate exposure. As for the story's villain-in-waiting--Loki--he sums up much of the conflict for the story in just a few brief panels:

Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men (4-issue Limited Series)
Chris Claremont, writer; Jon Bogdanove, penciller

Synopsis: The X-Men approach Reed Richards to assist in curing a condition suffered by Shadowcat, while the FF find themselves dealing with an internal problem that strikes to their very foundation.

There's a joker in this deck, in the form of Dr. Doom; and Claremont gives Franklin Richards some decent story space. As for the X-Men, their beef with the FF comes when Richards inexplicably declines to give his help. That leads to the X-Men lashing out, and to their subsequently accepting of Doom's offer to take Richards' place. When the story finally resolves, Doom's plan to upstage his rival is foiled, though you could hardly tell by his attitude:

(Interesting how his armor's mouthpiece retracts to allow for eating, no?)

The X-Men vs. The Avengers (4-issue Limited Series)
Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco, writers; Marc Silvestri and Keith Pollard, pencillers

Synopsis: Though he claims he's reformed, everybody's after Magneto.

"Everybody," meaning the X-Men, the Avengers, the Soviet Super-Soldiers, and government higher-ups (though the X-Men really just want to know why he's suddenly interested in salvaging fallen pieces of his old asteroid base). There are a lot of typical team clashes resulting from just who is going to take custody of Magneto; but the real point of the story is to pick up where Uncanny X-Men #200 left off, with Magneto's aborted trial. And when Magneto gets hauled back to court, we finally get our verdict:

But we also get another look at a Stern-helmed story featuring the Avengers under Captain Marvel's leadership, as well as an interesting look at how the "reformed" Magneto handles the temptation of solving the problem of mutant prejudice through force, however benevolently.

Which now brings us to the series I wasn't too crazy about:

Mephisto vs. ... (4-issue Limited Series)
Al Milgrom, writer; John Buscema, penciller

Synopsis: Mephisto manipulates four super-teams in order to attain his true prize.

Yes, you read that correctly--Al Milgrom scripted this series, a credit you don't often see associated with the man. The story has Mephisto working his way through the Fantastic Four, the X-Factor (the name oddly reads that way on the cover), the X-Men, and the Avengers (in that order), each time abducting a female from the team (Sue Richards, Jean Grey, and Rogue, respectively) before using Rogue in the fourth installment to separate Thor's soul from his injured body and pressuring him to surrender it--all to fend off a power play by Hela, the Asgardian death goddess. Good grief. Did you get all that? I realize that Mephisto is the calculating, bide-his-time type, but that all seems a little circuitous even for him.

If I remember correctly, Mephisto at the time was still recovering from having his essence ripped apart by Franklin Richards (man, that kid gets around), and thus needed to manipulate all of these people the old-fashioned way in order to eventually nab Rogue. Hela arrives to confront Mephisto in the fourth issue, and she comes out on top in the contest. But you get the sense that this story didn't mean a hill of beans in the scheme of things; indeed, Hela wipes the memories of all involved at the end (for no apparent reason whatsoever), so for them it never really happened.  On the plus side, Milgrom does explore some interesting points with each installment and its respective team; but the series reads as if it's being intentionally dragged out, most likely because each team's encounter with Mephisto is given its own full-size issue in order to take advantage of sales potential.

As for Mephisto, I wish I had enjoyed his plodding plan as much as he apparently did:

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