Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Billion To One

I find that "origin issues" offer me something different than other types of comics stories I might pull out for review, and perhaps the same holds true for yourself as a reader. Generally we're already familiar with the subject matter being presented, so the only question remaining is: how will the issue's writer treat this material this time? What new perspective will they bring to the table, while still holding true to facts that are virtually set in stone? If it turns out to be an "origin issue," the writer's task seems doubly difficult: instead of just a few panels on a page or two, their take on the character's origin will have to be interesting and fresh for about twenty or so pages of reading. Roy Thomas's re-telling of the origin of the Fantastic Four is a nice example, even adding a little context to the original story without deviating from the basic facts. Thomas also gave the Black Panther's origin another look in an issue of Avengers (and considerably expanded on it).

We've of course seen numerous origins of villains within the pages of the issues they're first featured in, as well as "flashback" origins in subsequent stories where they next show up. But it's a rare day when a villain's origin will take up the bulk of an issue's pages, given that it's the title character(s) the reader has shelled out money to see. The solution in such cases is to weave those main characters into the origin story being laid out, which still allows the villain to be the focus. It's not every new villain out of the gate who's given that kind of clout.

One of the most striking examples of such a villain was a character who would end up only being a "one-shot" villain, rather than someone who would take a place in Marvel's lineup of memorable major villains and who would stand the test of time.  That would be the Over-Mind, who made one heck of an impression on the Watcher, Dr. Doom, and an embattled Fantastic Four, but apparently not enough of one on Marvel to be effectively brought back in his original role. Not exactly what we expected from a villain whose mandate was to "crush the universe."

Yet the Over-Mind's origin issue (and it is exactly that) is something to see, taking place after a two-issue build-up for a villain whose coming merited a warning by the Watcher. (As well as an agitated Agatha Harkness, who, without even knowing the nature of the threat, urged the FF to flee for their lives). One of the last stories to be plotted by Stan Lee, one of the (regrettably) few FF stories to be scripted by Archie Goodwin, and illustrated by John Buscema and Joe Sinnott, "The Secret Of The Eternals" sets the stage for a character who would make an impressive mark in FF history, but who now lies forgotten in the Marvel dustbin. It would take greater minds than ours (and even the Over-Mind's) to make sense of that. But try not to hold the Over-Mind's ultimate fate in comics against the story that reveals his reason for being, because it's one of the more inspired and entertaining origin tales for an antagonist that you'll find, past or present.

Things are set in motion with the Watcher's initial warning still worrying the FF, and they decide to make contact with him in order to obtain more definitive answers on the enemy they face. Naturally, even Reed Richards can't just pick up a transmitter and signal the Watcher, so he contacts Agatha Harkness so that she can do so by mystic means:

I'll have to admit to being impressed by Agatha's ever-growing repertoire of abilities that she seems able to supply the FF on request, and buzzing the Watcher's outer space complex ranks right up there. But judging by the Watcher's demeanor, I can't help feeling that he's singularly unimpressed; in fact, if he were less formal, he'd probably be saying something like "Girl, please--I was performing such trifling feats before I even altered the axis of my first planet."

But this is the Over-Mind's show, after all--and Buscema gives us an amazing splash page to begin this issue's startling tale:

Buscema's representation is just awesome, merging both the universal venue of the Watcher with the technology of Reed Richards, to create a symbolic but impressive display of this conference taking place in the virtual backdrop of the universe. The image for me comprises the essence of adventure I always associated with Fantastic Four.

As we see, the story begins with words the FF are already familiar with--the ancient prophecy of the Over-Mind. As the Watcher has already cautioned, the answers that he's about to provide regarding their foe won't make any difference for the FF--but, in the spirit of offering them a chance, he proceeds.

You may notice a certain similarity between Buscema's rendition of the Over-Mind's race (the "Eternals"--no relation to Jack Kirby's creation) and his depiction of the world of Arkon. Both cultures thrive on constant war as a way of life; both are savage, yet they make use of science and technology. But they differ in the scope of their ambition--the people on Arkon's world are content to war with each other and gather the spoils, while the Eternals are bent on conquest of other worlds and the enslavement of their populations, as well as far worse.

But basically, Buscema's renditions of these warlike races are the same, with all of their respective factions on the same page where conflict is concerned.

Again, though, the Eternals are on a level of their own in terms of aggression. And when there is a lull in victims, they turn to each other to keep their instincts sharp and their battle edge intact:

At this point, we can safely assume that Grom will be our future Over-Mind. It only remains to be seen how and why he'll be turned into a living, vengeful weapon for his race. And for that, we'll need the Watcher to introduce another element to our story:

(The guy stands on a planet. Perhaps, again, only symbolically, but it's possible he's really standing on a planet. Just for comparison's sake:  when you and I want a better vantage point, we generally have to find a chair to stand on.)

Gigantus, to be clear, more than lives up to its name, if it's not only occupying several galaxies--several galaxies, mind you--but "dwarfing" them. While that incredible description is perhaps a misuse of dramatic license, the planet's size will prove to be an important factor in this story--but also important is that its race is the moral opposite of the Eternals:

If you're thinking that the Eternals would consider Gigantus ripe for conquest, you're right on target (so to speak). In the story, one person on their council (a "Gigantan," I suppose) remarks, "Perhaps there is hope. We have remained undiscovered for so long..." -- and given this planet's reputed size, I have to wonder how that sort of expectation is even remotely realistic. Needless to say, the Eternals had little to no trouble spotting it, and they arrived with guns blazing:

But this time, even the Eternals were daunted, to the point of retreating. Unfortunately, the Eternals have another word for retreat: "revenge."

On Gigantus, there's probably a saying: "Anything you can do, we can do bigger." And so, on the verge of their world's destruction, they proceeded to avenge themselves on the Eternals, and repay them in kind.

Yet, even as their race faced extinction*, the Eternals were making plans to make certain that the universe would pay in full for their humiliation, and that their reputation as conquerors would remain one to be feared. And that would involve a fateful procedure:

*I'm not totally on board with the Eternals facing extinction from this attack. No colonies or outposts on other worlds? No fleets elsewhere? Though it's possible they funneled all their resources into the attempted conquest of Gigantus.

And so the Over-Mind incubates, and the Watcher's tale effectively ends. Yet his final words are chilling ones:

We've already seen what happens next, as Reed Richards is co-opted by the Over-Mind and abandons the FF to join his new master. And with their leader now under the command of their enemy, the conclusion of the issue finds the remaining members of the FF assessing their chances in a nutshell:

Quite an origin issue, resulting in even more build-up for the Over-Mind. As the Watcher makes clear to the FF after he's concluded his briefing, the Over-Mind has already met the team in a skirmish where he tested their powers as well as their ability to challenge him, and concluded that they posed no threat. Yet this issue still leaves us anticipating their confrontation of him in all-out battle, even with their fighting strength (and leadership) compromised. There's no doubt that our appetite has been whetted to read further.

Interestingly, we've learned a great deal about the Eternals, yet only a small portion of information on the Over-Mind himself. If it weren't for the dire misgivings of Agatha and the Watcher, we'd have no reason to believe that this is a threat against which the FF wouldn't inevitably prevail. But as we'd soon learn, only the intervention of another alien prevents the FF from being crushed before the Over-Mind moves on to the universe.

Fantastic Four #115

Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

I always loved the origins/backstories of villains - Annihillus is a memorable one. Marvel's grasp of scientific knowledge was never that great but a planet bigger than several galaxies - you've got to be joking !! How big is the star around which Gigantus orbits ??!!

Murray said...

I've never had to tiptoe around spoilers for a review blog before. Good thing you mentioned you were continuing on with this saga. I'll bide my time.

Don't, as they say, get me started on the re-re-RE-retelling of origins. I'm surprised I haven't ground my teeth to the nubs. Oh, goodie, I'm spending my hard-earned allowance/wages and time to see the same story again. For every writer that actually brings some extra flavour to the origin, there are ten hacks who just retell it, or worse, taint it horribly with their own "vision".


The huge buildup of the Over-Mind makes me wonder if Stan wasn't hoping to end his tenure on a bang, creating a new "Galactus" for Marvel. For all the super-silly science spectacle and power, it's a non-starter. For all his new power, the Over-Mind is still Grom the arena brawler. He's Crusher Creel with abilities that are off the chart. There're no machinations or schemes or agendas. He shows up to destroy, but is far too powerful for it to be any sort of duke 'em up issue.

Speaking of Galactus...I suddenly would love to see a "What If" story: "What if Galactus found Gigantus First?" Well, we'd see a "first". Either the first time we'd ever see Galactus giggle with delight or the first time we'd ever see Galactus say "Jeez. I'm hungry but I ain't that hungry!"

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I have a feeling Gigantus orbited around at least several thousand stars, with one orbit lasting... well, had the planet not been destroyed, it would probably still be on its first pass!

Murray, first we'd probably have to have another story: "What If the Silver Surfer Needed Glasses?" I mean, you're not cutting it as a planetary scout if you miss the likes of Gigantus.