Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Way Back

As dramatic as the death of Gwen Stacy was in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, there would be additional drama to be found in how her death would affect Peter Parker, her boyfriend who had grown to deeply love her. Long-time readers of the book had invested a lot in the character of Gwen, because we were witness to that growth for nearly every step of the way--and for Peter, whose life as Spider-Man was never a glamorous one and who seemed to be the poster boy for hard luck cases, Gwen was the one bright spot in his life, one of the few that seemed to have a good chance of giving him a shot at happiness.

So when Gwen lost her life, it felt like a vacuum in these pages. Everything had changed so suddenly, and so many of the characters were at loose ends. Complicating matters was the death of Norman Osborn, whose identity as the Green Goblin was carefully hidden by a figure in the shadows. And there was Peter, who had to go on--not just as Peter, of course, but also as Spider-Man. Spider-Man still had books to sell, so Spider-Man couldn't just stay out of action due to grief. Yet when in action, Spider-Man couldn't be the same old quick-witted "Spidey," at least not for a while--because Peter had to come to terms with Gwen's death, and Spider-Man coming to terms with it while out adventuring was going to be a delicate balancing act.

There was a wealth of characterization to be mined while this situation played out, and there was simply no better person to handle the book during this period than writer Gerry Conway, who had been the brainchild behind taking out Gwen in the first place but who consequently opened the flood gates to such good story material. I've made no secret of my opinion that Conway's writing style presents too heavy a mood for most comic books, and comics characters in particular. When Conway takes the reins of a title, you can almost see cloud cover moving over the lives of those characters--souring their mood with pessimism and bitterness and sapping the joy out of their lives for the duration, their dialog becoming tense and confrontational. But the very reasons Conway often makes for such a depressing read also make him the near-perfect choice for this period in Peter's life following this kind of jolt that causes such a change of course for him. And as readers, still in shock ourselves, Conway makes it possible for us to empathize with Peter on levels that might have eluded the style of writers less likely to probe so deeply.

So in that sense, issue #123--the first issue following Spider-Man's confrontation with the Goblin, and where Peter must start to truly deal with his feelings in the aftermath and try to begin to pull his life back together--this is where perhaps the real drama in this story hits. And as you can see by the cover, Conway has no intention of letting Spider-Man sit on the sidelines nursing the same wounds that Peter is dealing with.

Friday, August 30, 2013

It's Not Easy Being Donald Blake

Just about any Thor reader knows about the dramatic process that changed the mortal Dr. Donald Blake to the God of Thunder. All Blake had to do was stamp his "walking stick" against a hard surface, and presto:

But Blake's change to Thor wasn't always so routine. There were times when the good doctor probably wished for a nice, reliable phone booth to make the switch, because sometimes changing to Thor was a dangerous occupation in itself.

For instance, whoever would see Don Blake as a prisoner of a Viet Cong leader suspecting him of being a spy--and binding him with the help of his own cane? As you'll see in most of these situations, Blake is forced to improvise his way to freedom.  Here, he does so by taking the fall, though to his advantage:

There was also fun to be found in outwitting some trolls who had captured him and confiscated his cane--that is, if you define "fun" as certain death if your timing isn't perfect:

And what about having to dive into the Hudson River and search for a hammer lying somewhere on the river bed 80 feet below the surface? Blake must be living right--because not only does he swim pretty well for a guy who's lame, but he's able to locate a small object like a hammer in an expansive waterway that covers over 300 miles. Fortunately he cobbled together a hammer-locator with his office x-ray machine and was able to narrow down the general area:

During another harrowing experience, Blake was tossed in Dr. Doom's dungeon after showing Doom he wasn't quite the brilliant surgeon he was reputed to be.  (And after seeing Blake's unprofessional reaction to his patient, I'm with Doom on this one.) With his cane tossed out of reach, Blake found his luck was with him again, given that dress shoes don't normally come with such long laces:

And imagine turning to Blake and finding you're surrounded by merciless giants who have orders to slay you. We'll also have to work that imagination overtime, so that we can figure out how the heck the Thor-to-Blake change happened while he was in Asgard. Anyway, there's no improvisation this time that's going to help Blake avoid becoming an hors d'oervre for these brutes, so he just runs for it:

Finally, I don't think things can get much worse than finding yourself falling from a building. What are you going to slam your cane against in freefall--a passing pigeon?

So how does Blake get out of this one? Well, we find out in the process that his transformation must happen incredibly fast--say, faster than it takes your entire human spine to shatter from impact with the concrete ground:

Maybe Odin should have rigged that stick to bring about Thor's change in another way.  Or how about just giving him a cool pair of nega-bands? Frankly it didn't seem to make much sense to arrange for a cane to be struck to bring about Thor's appearance, only to give custody of it to a man with a lame leg who would routinely bring it into contact with hard surfaces to assist him in walking. One accidental stumble in a busy New York intersection, and Thor appears out of nowhere in the middle of a crosswalk, with video of the whole thing up on YouTube shortly afterward.  I think I'd rather face Doom than a YouTube comment thread.

Trust Your Tailor To Keep You Aloft

Name This Marvel Villain??

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Trapped In Outer Space!

In Parts One and Two of the Avengers' battle with the Zodiac crime cartel, we've seen the odds between them shift back and forth as Taurus, Zodiac's current leader, seeks to extort money from New York by using his star-weapon to kill anyone in the city born under whatever astrological sign he decides to target for death. And the fact that Taurus has been unable to eliminate the threat of Earth's mightiest heroes has worked in the Avengers' favor, as Aries has gathered other cartel members and prepares to overthrow Taurus in a coup for leadership. But as we saw last time, Taurus has learned of the plan by meeting with Aries and his group in his hidden identity as Zodiac's financier, Cornelius Van Lunt. The meeting takes place in one of Van Lunt's warehouses--and everybody is surprised when the Avengers show up to attack.

What no one except Van Lunt/Taurus knows is that the warehouse is actually a fully functional rocket ship, which Van Lunt had planned to use against the rebel group to send them into space and thus end their threat. But when the Avengers show up unexpectedly, Van Lunt uses the opportunity to get rid of all his enemies in one stroke, and so triggers the "warehouse" to:

Bob Brown is back on art chores, this time with Mike Esposito finishing--and Steve Englehart also returns to conclude the tale. Zodiac is probably counting on him to get them out of this mess, because I have the feeling these astrological villains aren't crazy about spending the rest of their lives this close to the stars. And while the Avengers are currently in the same boat--er, warehouse--the issue's cover has us believing that their horoscope isn't hinging on a space trap, but on a final clash with Zodiac.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Burrowing To The Bottom

One of the most excruciating periods in my reading of Iron Man comes instantly to mind--the series of issues where Tony Stark, having lost his company to Obadiah Stane and recovering from falling off the wagon, forsakes his identity as Iron Man and heads to California to start over in business, becoming partners with Clytemnestra and Morley Erwin in a start-up called "Circuits Maximus"--while James Rhodes, who accompanied them, continues filling in as Iron Man. Writing and artwork during this time was done by Denny O'Neil and Luke McDonnell, respectively--and for an interminable two-year period, Iron Man essentially shuts down.

I knew there would be a light at the end of this spiralling-down tunnel, so it was just a matter of hanging on until then. But I think what made me finally cry out "For the love of Irving Forbush, enough!" was the story of Iron Man vs. ... vs. ....

Dear lord, I can't even say it.

You've now seen this book scrape the bottom of the barrel.  Dante himself couldn't go lower.

If the "Rhodey" you're expecting to see in this story is the same Rhodey who was such a vibrant character during the Michelinie/Romita/Layton run, who had loads of personality and the tight friendship with Tony Stark--well, that would have been nice, because that Rhodey would have made one hell of an Iron Man. Instead, we got a bitter, morose man who O'Neil also burdened with a psychological problem. And while he dragged both the stories and us down with him, we had battles with mutant termites to keep us entertained.

O'Neil was obviously taking a different tack with Rhodey's turn as Iron Man--showing us how someone without Stark's intuitive electronics skills or considerable experience as a super-hero would nevertheless give his best and offer his own brand of battle savvy to become an admittedly different but still compelling Iron Man for readers, at least for the duration. Unfortunately, the blasé writing style of O'Neil during this time was heavily mirrored by Stark, who hadn't a speck of drive or personality left in him. And when putting he and Rhodey together, this is often what you got:

But, hey, I bet you're waiting to see more of the incredible battle between Iron Man and the Termite. It plays out over two, count 'em, two issues, mostly because Rhodey's might-makes-right mindset doesn't take into account the Termite's power to dissolve anything just by touch. And while the Rhodey we used to know would use his head more and act like a human piledriver less, this Rhodey is driven by subconscious guilt of being undeserving of the Iron Man armor, and doesn't have his head in the game.

Sigh. Yes, the building comes down.

By the time of Rhodey's final meeting with the Termite, he's at the point where he doesn't care what happens to innocent bystanders as long as he nails this guy:

It's then that Stark shows up to add insult to injury, disabling the Termite by using the weapon that Forge designed to rob Rogue of her power. And the story ends as it began where Rhodey is concerned:  bitterly.

McDonnell would end his run on the book when Rhodey sought out Shaman (of Alpha Flight) to help him get to the psychological reason for his severe headaches--close to issue #200, where Stark reclaims the Iron Man identity. Oddly enough, once Rhodey clears that hurdle and McDonnell departs, O'Neil snaps this book and these characters back to life, and, under other artists, the stories and characters become interesting again--engaged again. Remember Bethany Cabe? Just look at her take on some goons out to capture her:

I know, I know--dull stuff like this doesn't hold a candle to the Termite, does it?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Warehouse To The Stars!

In Part 1 of a three-part story featuring the Avengers vs. Zodiac, we found the assemblers cornering Zodiac while foiling a plan to kill all of Manhattan's citizens born under the sign of Gemini.  It also looked like Mantis was about to take the fall for the crime cartel. And from the roof of the World Trade Center, we're talking about quite a fall:

For Part 2, John Buscema has stepped in as guest artist, with regular artist Bob Brown presumably being occupied with his other work on Daredevil. Don Heck, who's logged many, many hours as regular penciller on this title, is instead inking Parts 1 and 2, and the result of his work with both Brown and Buscema shows just how much of his influence comes through in his finishing--particularly over Buscema's layouts, whom I don't believe Heck has ever inked before now. (Though please correct me if otherwise.) Neither Brown nor Heck rank in my top 10, as far as pencillers go--but their work on this story has been respectable, and to be fair they've definitely had their hands full with not only a full team of Avengers but a team of twelve villains as well.

Part 2 of this story will see the dust settle a little, as the Avengers get their bearings and track down their elusive foes--with two additional Avengers returning to the fold, as well, though one of them only briefly. We'll also get some insight on the circumstances of the Swordsman's return from the man himself, as well as how he came to meet his partner and lover, Mantis. As for Zodiac, we'll learn how Cornelius Van Lunt is something of a "silent partner" with them, though his involvement with the cartel goes deeper than they realize; and we'll see Taurus butt heads with another member who's challenged his leadership. (No, seriously, butt heads.)

But haven't we forgotten about something?

Yikes! We'd better get back to business!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Death-Stars of the Zodiac!

I've always enjoyed those times when the international crime cartel, Zodiac, makes its appearance in force within the pages of The Avengers--mostly because, as crime bosses, the individual members of the group run their operations behind the scenes, and their appearance as a costumed, super-powered group is a rare treat. In fact, there's no real reason for them to don their costumes and initiate a power play as a group, since all of them being in the same place at the same time runs too great a risk of all of them being captured at once, and thus crippling their network of criminal activity and personnel. I guess it's a good thing for us that, from time to time, they ignore that sensible advice and come out to play.

The first time I recall the Avengers tangling with Zodiac was when they became involved in a SHIELD investigation where Nick Fury was infiltrating them as one of their members, Scorpio (a/k/a his brother, Jake). And it was quite a lineup of costumed crime bosses:

Aries, the group's leader, used the Zodiac key to make their escape when the Avengers and Fury were on the verge of taking them out. The key is an object from another dimension which thrives on conflict, so it's understandable why it was sent to Earth. It first appeared to Jake and thus passed through Scorpio's leadership; and in the group's second encounter with the Avengers, it was Aries who made considerable use of the key when he took the entire island of Manhattan hostage and demanded $1 billion in ransom in exchange for the lives of the population. Aries had all of the resources of Zodiac at his disposal (including those of financier Cornelius Van Lunt, who we'll get to another time), as well as a private army--though Zodiac itself never suited up, and Aries ran the entire show (fortunately for the cartel, as it turned out). The Avengers eventually got the upper hand, and Thor ended up destroying the ship carrying the fleeing Aries, who was using the key at the time to kill Manhattan's citizens in revenge. With Thor's strike, the key was presumed destroyed along with Aries.

Cut to four years later, when writer Steve Englehart brings Zodiac back with a vengeance--and this time, the crime bosses are ready to suit up in their costumes for the duration, now under the leadership of Taurus. And they have an even bolder plan--side-stepping taking hostages and instead carrying out the deaths of innocents before moving to extortion:

Taurus is referring to a new weapon of the cartel--a ship that doubles as a larger version of the hand-held "star-blazer" weapon he carries that fires powerful stellar energy. And in an excellent three-part story beginning in Avengers #120, the weapon demonstrates its power when Zodiac attacks Avengers Mansion and strikes the first blow in a diabolical plan that doesn't bode well for either Manhattan or Earth's mightiest heroes.  Considering Taurus' disposition, you'd better believe that that's no bull.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Panther's Prey, More or Less

Normally in these comparisons between the original cover of a Fantastic Four story and its reinterpretation by another artist for the story's reprint in the pages of Marvel's Greatest Comics, there's a balance between the original work and the newer that lets you equally appreciate the interesting choices made by their respective artists. But in the case of Fantastic Four #52, which introduces the Black Panther, the covers by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin make striking such a balance difficult:

Both covers are inked by Joe Sinnott, which levels the playing field a little--but as with many of these cover line-ups, the real meat of the debate is in the different approaches taken by the pencillers with respect to the issue's story. The Panther, the mysterious chieftain of Wakanda, issues an invitation to the FF to be his guests, but arranges an elaborate trap for them in order to test himself in battle before he faced an old enemy (Klaw, the "Master of Sound") returning to steal Wakanda's mound of vibranium. Yet for this particular issue, the reader only knows that the Panther is intent on trapping and taking out the FF, for reasons unknown. So the cover has to really do only a couple of things for the reader: give the Panther a dramatic introduction, and show him being a threat to the FF.

As you can see, Starlin throws out subtlety altogether and cuts to the chase of the story on his cover, with perhaps practical reasons. For one thing, since this story has been published before, Starlin has to do more on the cover to "sell" (or in this case, re-sell) the story of the Panther, who by the time of this reprint is now an established character as well as one of the Avengers; as a result, there's no need to "introduce" or otherwise feature the Panther prominently on the cover, and so the more popular FF takes front and center (obviously in peril) while the Panther is moved to the background. Also, Starlin is handicapped by the smaller cover area he's given to work with, as opposed to the original's full-size area which Kirby can take advantage of--so cramming the important elements of the story into the frame may have been his only option. He also ditches the Panther's original cape motif, which might have confused contemporary readers.

As for Kirby, he meets the two cover conditions given above yet chooses to heighten the drama and stay true to the actual theme of the story. Here, the Black Panther is a mysterious new character, and receives appropriate attention on the cover while still keeping the FF reasonably visible in a marketing sense, neither stealing the other's thunder. Though Kirby's symbolic splash page, which nearly duplicates the cover, drives home the point that it's the Black Panther who's the focus of this story:

And while Starlin "spills the beans" of how the Panther traps the members of the FF*, Kirby only lets the reader know that the FF are being stalked--and that while they're approaching the danger in force, their caution speaks volumes.

*Starlin obviously doesn't have room to show the Torch's actual trap, so instead the Torch gets a pose that indicates the Panther has rendered him helpless in some way. As for the Invisible Girl, let's just pretend she's invisible--well, invisibly trapped, I guess.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Surrender Or The Universe Gets It

We all know that tactics like this work great for villains:

But have you wondered how many heroes have stooped to this level?

After watching Captain Marvel actually grab a hostage and threaten her life so that he could win a battle, I started wondering if other Marvel characters did this sort of thing. Nowadays I suppose heroes wouldn't think twice about it, as their moral compass in today's comics was long ago crushed underfoot. Wolverine, for instance, threatens lives as a matter of course, and he certainly has no scruples as far as threatening captives for information, so it's probably no great leap for him to *snikt* someone important to a villain if it was a way to end their threat.

So what heroes have crossed this line? Well, I remember Iron Man opening the door for the Avengers with this little maneuver:

Afterward, the Black Panther calls him on it:

Let's put it to a vote, yes or no: Would Stark have gone through with it? And isn't it a little unnerving that we can't answer "No!" in unison?

Sometime later, in a pitched battle with an all-powerful foe, Iron Man resorts to the same ploy again. And just look at the other Avengers who are on board with it:

Granted that these stories, written by the same writer, were probably meant to raise the issue for drama's sake, without necessarily resolving it; indeed, no meeting was ever held to settle the matter, or to bring anyone up on charges (though we probably have Moondragon to thank for that, as she presumably removed specifics of the Avengers' memories of the battle). But to see seasoned Avengers like Yellowjacket and Hawkeye follow Iron Man's lead--and enthusiastically, at that--was a disturbing thought to come away from the story with, nor is the fact that neither of them remember doing so comforting.

I must say, though, that of all people, I never expected Reed Richards to throw in with this crowd:

I'd say holding an entire universe hostage sets a new standard, no?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Whatever-It-Takes Warrior

If you bought this 1973 issue of Captain Marvel, let's just say that its cover took a few liberties in selling you on the story:

At least we can safely assume one thing: "Dr. Mynde" is the evil looking guy rampaging against our hero. Other than that, let me clear up a few misconceptions you're bound to have as you read this issue:
  • These two don't battle in the city streets, nor do any unfortunate lampposts meet their end.
  • There are no people on the streets trying to kill each other. You can find that in issues with the Over-Mind, or Inferno, or the Hate Monger, but Mynde's hands are clean in that respect.
  • I don't know who the "Android-Man" is, but he's probably in another mag hanging with Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wonder Man, Marvel Man, Iceman, and other manly men. Mynde is no android/man hybrid, nor does he have a snazzy costume like the cover villain.
  • Finally, Mar-vell looks like he's taking the fight to Mynde and holding his own, doesn't he? Unfortunately, he gets his ass handed to him--and also loses points in the honor category, but more on that later.

What you will find is Rick Jones... a story that pays homage to certain elements from Goldfinger... and an ending that will probably have you ripping this issue into confetti.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fantastic End Run

Whoa, Sue--back up a sec!

Not that it isn't high time that you stepped out in front of your own shadow--but say again? You're saying it's your right to assume leadership of the FF simply because you're married to the leader who's missing?

I bet Reed wishes he could stretch his body half as far as you're stretching the meaning of "ex officio."

Not that you wouldn't make a great leader, of course:

Then again, point of order...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Even Avengers Can Die!

By the time Avengers #14 hit the stands, the original team of Avengers was on its last legs. There would be one final battle with the Masters of Evil, and then the history of this Avengers lineup would end with one quiet, uneventful meeting around a small table:

So when reading issue #14, where it seemed that everything was thrown into the plot but the kitchen sink, it helps a little to do so with the benefit of hindsight, rather than judging it by its own disappointing merits. For instance, if you were to pick this issue off the comics rack and read it as part of the relatively short series it still was--assuming you were still reading The Avengers, by this point--it was probably becoming clear that this mix of heroes wasn't really doing it for you. The Avengers had just finished an encounter where Count Nefaria was working with the Maggia to discredit the team--and seeing the team assemble its might to avenge its reputation probably wasn't what you signed on for.

But more than that: it didn't seem like Marvel itself had its heart in this team. With Thor and Iron Man obviously having other responsibilities which demanded their time, and Giant-Man and the Wasp living off-site, the team had no real reason to use their headquarters as a headquarters--so the Avengers were essentially plugged into whatever plot required their attention when the time came. The reader had no sense of commitment from these people, other than the fact that they threw their all into dealing with the job at hand.

So in the issue leading up to this crisis, where the Wasp is injured at Nefaria's castle, perhaps it's not surprising that even the writer, the artist, and the letterer don't seem too concerned about it:

With the incident happening off-panel, it completely bypasses the drama that it could have taken advantage of--unlike, say, when the Scarlet Witch was once similarly injured. The reader was left to fill in the blanks--which was no easy task, considering the plot holes. For instance, even with the Maggia present, there were no bullets flying while the Avengers were fighting. We're also told later that the bullet in question hit the Wasp's left lung--so we either have to assume that the Wasp for some reason wasn't wasp-sized, or that was one heck of a tiny bullet.

At any rate, "Even Avengers Can Die!" was something of a hail Mary pass that was trying to establish a bond and a sense of unity among these team members that thirteen prior issues had failed to do, by playing the death card that markets so well on an issue cover.