Monday, November 30, 2015

The Astonishing Turmoil of Henry Pym!

Whenever a comics cover is split into parts, teasing the reader with glances at most if not all of the story's different scenes, you have to admit it's a pretty decent selling tool--even in a case where several of the captions make light of the contents, such as this cover to Avengers #227.

Captain Marvel, a brand new character at this point, receives prominence, since it's quickly becoming apparent she's being groomed for Avengers membership (more quickly than we realize, as it turns out, which the story will make clear), though she doesn't turn out to be the story's eventual focus. The She-Hulk, with only five issues under her belt as a new Avenger herself, also receives cover attention, with the caption doing its best to highlight her relatively low-key appearance. The same might appear to hold true for the Wasp--though her frivolous caption belies the somewhat more serious scene that waits within.

No, this story's real focus is assessing the state of Henry Pym, disgraced Avenger--currently incarcerated at the prison facility of Ryker's Island, where he receives a visitor who will attempt to determine his mental fitness to stand trial for his federal crime. Sifting through Pym's mental state is a tall order, no doubt; but as a result, this issue will provide the most comprehensive look to date at his life and career, which must include his steady spiral to rock bottom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When Equals Clash!

It's time for your easy, simple, no-thought-required question for the week:

Which character is more powerful--Dr. Doom, or the Silver Surfer?

Before you leap to your answer--and you have every right to leap to an answer on this one--you've probably recalled that there's been more than one occasion when Doom has outmaneuvered the Surfer in some way to make it seem that he's the Surfer's superior. And if we keep in mind that Doom once figured out a way to beat the Beyonder, it's not such a stretch to accept that he could do the same with the Surfer.

BUT: Put Doom and the Surfer ten paces from each other on a deserted field, and whose power will prevail?

We're probably on the same page on this one: the Surfer. The Surfer, of course. Doom could probably make a fight of it--for all of five seconds, until a burst of cosmic power vaporized him, or melted him into slag, or transmuted him into an iron toad. Doom faced such power before, and where did it get him? First paralyzed, and then incinerated. Without a carefully-laid plan and access to specialized equipment, there are some opponents even Doom isn't a match for.

But would you be surprised to learn that the Surfer disagrees with us? That the Surfer himself feels that Doom is his match?

He didn't initially feel that way, of course; in fact, at one time, after he was sufficiently provoked by the good doctor, the Surfer made it quite clear to Doom where the monarch of Latveria stood as far as being any kind of threat to the power of the Silver Surfer.

That's a pretty potent demonstration, no doubt about it. And as far as the Surfer is concerned, the matter is closed; but Doom feels obliged to counter with a demonstration of his own might, which amounts to--I am not kidding--moving some of the room's rubble back to where it was blasted from. That's it. Moving the rubble back into place. It's still rubble, mind you, but apparently Doom feels he's made his point.

Has he?

Well, we're all probably expecting the Surfer to be doubled over in laughter right about now after seeing Doom's posturing that accompanies this embarrassing display of his "power." But have a look instead at the Surfer's formal response to his adversary, which would likely have had you ripping this copy of Fantastic Four into shreds.

That's right:  Doom and the Surfer are equals in power. You can't un-see a declaration like that.

I'm really hoping at this point that the Surfer has picked up a talent for sarcasm.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In Final Battle With Mutant X!

Having confronted the X-Men and lived to tell the tale, the mutant known as Proteus now rampages through the streets of Edinburgh, using his power over reality to throw the city into chaos. Proteus, now in possession of a new host body--the corpse of his father, Joe MacTaggert--holds Joe's wife Moira hostage in order to prevent the X-Men from interfering with him; and in taking his father as a host, Proteus possesses all of Joe's memories, including the contempt he held for Moira as well as a tendency to take what he wants. As a result, the X-Men face a more ruthless, more driven foe who is now drunk with power and a sense of superiority over the human race.

For now, the X-Men can only engage in damage control, pitching in and helping those people who are victims of the shifting landscapes that Proteus has set in motion. As for Moira, try though she may to reach through to her son, Proteus is now as Cyclops has judged him to be: one of the most evil of evil mutants that the X-Men were created to battle and protect humanity against. In a way, writer Chris Claremont has enabled that label of evil and our perception that Proteus, now a callous murderer, is beyond redemption, thanks to a very strange omission throughout this story--the fact that, unlike the rest of his family, Proteus is never referred to by his birth name. Instead, he's been known by the name displayed forebodingly on his cell door on Muir Isle: "Mutant X," a name even Moria hasn't been allowed to move beyond. You're not exactly going to have the disposition of Wally Cleaver if your own mother refers to you by a lab label--nor does Moria seem conflicted about it. As Moira herself observed, "It was too late [for him] the day he was born."

As a result, and despite Claremont's efforts to establish a painful conflict within Moira involving her feelings for her son vs. her acknowledgment of his nature, it's been difficult to truly see Moira in the role of this boy's mother, particularly given how easily she seems to be able to avoid using his name--and surely she had to have given her son a name, right? How else would she have addressed him whenever she checked in on him? "Good morning, Mutant X, beautiful day outside--how did you sleep?" Yet when she thinks of him or speaks of him (and even while desperately trying to appeal to him), she only uses noncommittal references such as "boy" or "son." It's hard to tell whether Moira MacTaggert observed Mother's Day in profound sadness, or threw darts at the date circled on her calendar.

Be that as it may, Moira now finds herself at the mercy of Proteus--but the X-Men are resolved to end his threat, and her anguish, by whatever means necessary.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Home Is Where The Hurt Is

During his confrontation of three X-Men in the Scots highlands, the murderous threat known as Mutant X had at last unleashed his reality-altering powers and rechristened himself as Proteus, closing in on the injured Storm in order to use her as his new host body so that he can continue to survive. To counter his assault, Storm has raised hurricane-force winds in an effort to keep him from her--winds that now hamper the efforts of her friends, Nightcrawler and Wolverine, to help her. Storm is on her own--in what appears to be her last stand, in this third installment to the X-Men's deadly encounter with a being for whom reality itself reforms to his every command.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Return Of The Big Man

The introduction of the Kingpin in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, while a significant chapter in the web-slinger's history, is really more of a story of one man's redemption--that of Frederick Foswell, star reporter of the "Daily Bugle," and the former crime boss known as "the Big Man." Back in the day, the Big Man had the distinction of being the mag's first "Kingpin," the first crime lord that Spidey would tackle and one who didn't have any physical assets beyond a savvy mind and a crime network that made a city tremble.

Thanks in part to the persuasive talents of his personal ruffians, the aptly-named Enforcers, the Big Man carved out a feared criminal organization as well as a reputation for himself that made him a power in New York. And while the Big Man called the shots, it fell to the Enforcers to bring in line anyone who needed to be brought in line--which you think would be a tall order for men who weren't packing weapons like the seasoned hoods who were refusing to follow the Big Man's orders. The Enforcers consisted of the Ox, Montana, and Fancy Dan, whose talents were (respectively) brute strength, a skill with a lasso, and fancy footwork combined with judo. Call me crazy by pointing out that there's nothing about these men that makes them any less vulnerable to a spray of bullets from the mobsters they're trying to intimidate; but the Enforcers nevertheless made for effective "enforcement" of the Big Man's edicts.

Eventually, the abilities of the Enforcers were needed to fend off Spider-Man, who naturally sought to stem the crime wave. But Spider-Man was also intent on uncovering the identity of the Big Man, whom he first mistakenly thought was J. Jonah Jameson. Imagine his (and our) surprise when the Big Man turned out to be someone who might have remained beyond suspicion, if not for some good old-fashioned police work.

The character of Foswell is brought back a little over a year later (our time), in a surprising capacity: rehired by Jameson as one of his top reporters, perhaps with ulterior motives on Jameson's part but nonetheless a notable gesture from a newspaper publisher who knows a good thing when he sees it. Indeed, Foswell is instrumental in nabbing the city's current top underworld figure, the Crime-Master (and providing quite a scoop for the Bugle in the process), in part due to maintaining ties to the criminal community through use of a clever disguise.

Foswell goes on to stay on the straight and narrow, cementing his position at the Bugle while keeping tabs on the criminal underworld through his identity as "Patch, the stool pigeon." But nature abhors a vacuum--and New York eventually sees the arrival of another who would ascend to be the next crime lord and unite the underworld under one leader.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Reality, Checked

The ending to Uncanny X-Men #125 had us on the edge of our seats, didn't it? Mutant X had come out of hiding, and was attacking the residents of the Muir Isle research facility in Scotland in order to acquire a new host body for itself--while, back in New York, the X-Men were contacting the facility in order to let Moira MacTaggert and the others know that they were alive and well, when suddenly a scream was heard on the other end of the phone and the line went dead! The question was, who went dead with it?

And so the X-Men race to Scotland just as fast as their "Blackbird" jet will carry them, in the desperate hope they they won't be too late to save their friends from a threat that apparently has them at its mercy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Deadly Escape of Mutant X!

When last we checked in on the X-Men, they were preparing to at long last return home following their battle in Japan with former arms dealer turned terrorist Moses Magnum, who was threatening the country with destruction by triggering earthquakes along its fault lines. And now, following their return to the States, life has gone on for the team, as well as for those who were once associated with the X-Men. Charles Xavier now resides on the Shi'ar homeworld with his love, Empress Lilandra; while Jean Grey, separated from the X-Men after their deadly battle with Magneto, is currently staying on Muir Isle at Moira MacTaggert's research facility, along with Havok (brother to Cyclops), Lorna Dane (Polaris), and Jamie Madrox (the "Multiple Man"). The paths of both groups have yet to cross, with the X-Men as well as Jean believing each other to have died in the fight at Magneto's Antarctic base. That is about to change.

In the meantime, unknown to Moira or her guests, something is stalking the corridors of the research complex--a deadly entity known as "Mutant X," who has killed an intruder who was planning to sabotage the facility, taking his body to use as a host form. There are many other things happening in this transition issue (that is, an issue that paves the way for major action in succeeding issues), segments which bring us up to speed on several developments which in one way or another involve the X-Men. We see Magneto, on his asteroid base, recuperating from injuries he sustained battling the X-Men in Antarctica (though it looks rather odd to see even a comic book character recuperating in costume--Magneto didn't think to pack PJs or a robe for that base?); Xavier, with some time to kill at a state function, decides to review the file on Phoenix that details how she repaired an energy matrix and prevented "the end of all that is," and, horrified, he hurriedly makes preparations to return to Earth; and the man known as Jason Wyngarde begins to infiltrate and manipulate Jean's thoughts as part of a plan to indoctrinate her into the Hellfire Club.

Clearly, as this issue's cover implies, writer Chris Claremont is keeping several plates spinning simultaneously as he moves things along in the X-Men's world--though as we'll see throughout the storyline involving Mutant X, some of those plates depend on the smudging of key details in order to stay spinning atop their poles.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This Hatred Unceasing

J. Jonah Jameson's obsession with putting an end to Spider-Man often seems as essential a part of Spider-Man's profile as everything else we've come to associate with the web-slinger, from his circle of friends, to his Aunt May, to his bizarre rogues' gallery of enemies, to his identity as Peter Parker. Without Jameson, Spider-Man probably wouldn't have the distinction of being an outsider, an outlaw--and since he's always been focused on crime-fighting, he likely wouldn't be so distanced from law enforcement, with his only links to sympathetic figures in the police being in the form of George Stacy, or Jean DeWolff, or others willing to cut him some slack.

To bottom-line it: Spider-Man, without Jameson, just might be a hero. Which opens the door to a question which has puzzled readers for decades:

Just why does Jameson hate Spider-Man?

What's the reason for his relentless hounding of the wall-crawler, his incessant drive to turn public opinion against him?

As a character unto himself--that is to say, absent his obsession to hunt down Spider-Man like a dog--Jonah Jameson remains one of the more brilliant character creations of writer Stan Lee. Influential, irascible, direct, and often misguided, Jameson is accustomed to throwing his weight around, with sometimes embarrassing results:

Such a character, particularly with his ties to news and frequent run-ins with organized crime, is an essential component of Spider-Man's one-man activities in New York, especially since Peter has chosen to be an integral part of Jameson's newspaper, the "Daily Bugle." Yet there's Jameson's irrational hatred of Spider-Man in play as well, and it needn't be. In fact, there have often been examples where Spider-Man rates a story in the Bugle absent its publisher's agenda, instances which didn't factor in Jameson's malice toward Spidey but instead focused on his instincts as a newsman in pursuing the details of a hot story, whether it reflected badly on the subject or not. And when he's in his element as a no-nonsense publisher who has a paper to run, Jameson is irresistible.

Jameson has also proven himself to be a compelling character even without Spider-Man being in the picture, whether it has to do with social issues or corrupt politicians. The point is that Jameson, as a viable character, needs no motivational factor to be relentless or hard-nosed in pursuing a story; in other words, his distaste for the way Spider-Man often works outside the law need not translate to unfounded hatred. Spider-Man can still be a worthwhile news item for the Bugle, and he can still be the occasional target for a story which reflects badly on him, while allowing Jameson to operate within the confines of his flaws and remain a provocative character--hot-tempered, blunt, insistent, annoying, miserly, and always looking for an angle which will boost newspaper circulation, even if at times it treads on sensationalism.

It hasn't been often when Lee or other writers have addressed Jameson's hatred of Spider-Man head-on, perhaps reluctant to let the genie out of the bottle and risk taking the wind out of Jameson's sails. Instead, that hatred is couched in print, in what Jameson's dogged editorials against the wall-crawler have labelled as "the Spider-Man menace," an open-ended term which allows Jameson to express his obsession while brandishing the credentials of a journalist and appearing to be committed to exposing a fraud. Such diatribes have been delivered from Jameson since day one; in fact, if we take a look at such a sequence from Amazing Spider-Man #1 and compare it to another from issue #50, we see how little has changed in the style and content of Jameson's delivery.

As much of a reputation that Jameson has of being a tightwad, these are startling lengths the man goes to in order to raise public awareness about his opinion of Spider-Man--renting halls to deliver lectures, as well as sponsoring television programs in order to give himself a forum to broadcast his vitriol. We do, however, get a sense of why Jameson has at times expressed disdain for other super-powered individuals and their activities (though with considerably less vehemence)--in his eyes, their sensational exploits eclipsing the heroism and achievements of the average man, and in particular his astronaut son. Yet Spider-Man, for some reason, has been elevated above the others in Jameson's mind.

Very early in Spider-Man's career, that reason was given form by Lee, and seems to have been intended to be the definitive disclosure of the cause of Jameson's hatred of the web-spinner. The moment even receives cover billing:

It turns out to be an anticlimactic moment, with Jameson's reason amounting to no more than--of all things--jealousy.

It's an acknowledgement of personal failures and flaws that doesn't mesh with the unapologetic, forceful, and at times egotistical character we've come to know in the pages of the book over the years. In just a few panels, Lee makes Jonah Jameson an almost pitiable figure, and adds complications to future stories where Jameson's actions toward Spider-Man come into play. For instance, when there's a story involving Spider-Man having reached his limit with Jameson, where should our sympathies lie?

Much later, writer Gerry Conway appears to make an effort to redefine the root of Jameson's over-the-top obsession with Spider-Man, shifting its focus back to his regard for the accomplishments of the common man. It bears mentioning, however, that the scenes from both Lee and Conway which seek to pin down Jameson in this way have one thing in common--Jameson's love of and admiration for his son, whose accomplishments are, from Jameson's perspective, overshadowed by the seemingly attention-getting antics of Spider-Man.

And having Jameson as a sort of unofficial crusader for the common man would not have been a bad way to go with such a character, who serves as both antagonist and comic relief and whose flaws are on display for all to see. In this way, Jameson need not come after Spider-Man with a pitchfork and television spots that declare him a menace who must be caught at all costs--unfounded accusations delivered with such bile that they make Jameson seem almost psychotic. Instead, Jameson could have continued being Jameson, but balancing his dislike of Spider-Man's methods and questionable judgment with a surly attitude that would have let him air his grievances involving the web-spinner among his reporting staff and in the columns of editorials that called Spider-Man to task without eviscerating him--and without calling for his head on a platter.

Monday, November 16, 2015

When Quakes The Magnum Force!

The "new" X-Men didn't have much time to acclimate to Charles Xavier's school before they were thrust into various conflicts in locales around the world (and beyond), receiving their training "on the job." A space station in Earth orbit battling the Sentinels; then on to Ireland, and an encounter with Black Tom Cassidy and the Juggernaut; then to Scotland, and escaping with their lives following the regeneration of Magneto on Muir Island; then across the galaxy to the Shi'ar homeworld. You'd think things would slow down a little at that point--if you call running into "Weapon Alpha," being ambushed by Warhawk, then kidnapped by Mesmero and brainwashed into being circus performers, followed by another near-deadly battle with Magneto "slowing down." At times you'd think the X-Men needed a vacation from their down time.

So we catch up with the team following their exit from the Savage Land, slowly but surely making their way back home. Their time together, away from the structured guidance of Xavier (however well-intentioned), has been well-spent, with Cyclops getting to know and bonding with his new team (and vice versa) while constantly working with them in the field as well as improvised training sessions, forging them into the workings of a fighting unit (if still a little rough around the edges). Currently, their friends back in New York believe them to have died in the fight against Magneto in Antarctica, while Cyclops and his group believe Phoenix and the Beast to have perished in the same battle--and so the book's characters have moved on, in one way or another. Xavier has decided to leave Earth and return with Lilandra to the Shi'ar Empire; Jean Grey has taken a long vacation and will end up in Scotland visiting Moira MacTaggert on Muir Isle; while the X-Men land in Japan, in a two-part story that will reunite them with Sunfire--as well as pit them against a madman bent on usurping control of Japan, or destroying it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

...With The Skrulls By Our Side!

Following up on Part 1 of the Avengers story where the team reunited with Captain Marvel in the Andromeda galaxy, only to find themselves in the position of having to aid the Skrulls against the mercenary Nebula and her armies, the Avengers now come to terms with the fact that the coming battle will not be an easy one to win, due to a literally massive complication: Nebula has taken control of "Sanctuary II," the weapon-ship formerly belonging to the deadly Thanos. With its formidable defenses, the Avengers and their allies will not only have their hands full trying to breach the ship, but also in dealing with Nebula's forces, whose vessels number in the hundreds.

However, without spoiling things too much, the situation isn't quite as dire as writer Roger Stern makes it seem, since we later find out that Sanctuary II can't make use of its offensive armament as long as its defense shields are raised, nor can it risk lowering those shields without the ship being immediately boarded by Captain Marvel--which means that Sanctuary II is effectively inert for the duration, and it basically comes down to the Avengers and the Skrull armada against Nebula's individual attack ships. That doesn't mean, however, that the Avengers and the Skrull commander, General Zedrao, don't consider Thanos's ship a prime target, since they don't dare let it remain in Nebula's hands.

Yet, with Nebula appearing to hold the advantage, the opening gambit of Zedrao and the Avengers, while ambitious and bold, perhaps isn't very realistic at this stage.

With hostilities now erupting, the Avengers add their forces to the Skrull armada and attack, while Captain Marvel engages the defense shields of Nebula's ship. Both sides know how crucial Sanctuary II's capture would be to the outcome of the battle, so the ship remains a focus for the Avenger most capable of penetrating it.

But, what of Firelord, who accompanied the Avengers to Andromeda and stood ready to help them in their mission? That was before the Avengers decided to ally themselves with the Skrulls, deadly enemies to Firelord's home world of Xandar and thus to Firelord. Once the team made its decision to join forces with the Skrulls, Firelord departed their ranks and decided to head in the direction of Xandar--but what he finds upon arrival would change both his perspective and his course of action.

With Sanctuary II's shields in imminent danger of failure, the crew sends a surge of power to repel Firelord, sending him hurtling away from the site--and, unknowingly, toward a fateful meeting, where the words exchanged will determine the outcome of this battle as well as the fate of Nebula.

Meanwhile, Hercules and the Black Knight bear witness to Captain Marvel's decisive strike against the defense shields of Sanctuary II--and with the path to Nebula now cleared, Zedrao's forces as well as the Avengers are quick to board. They're also joined by an apparent new and unexpected ally, who does more to impact morale among Nebula's men than the Avengers and the Skrulls combined.

With Cap's words, the deception drops, and "Thanos" as well as the other "Avengers" reveal themselves to be Zedrao and his forces--who are only too happy to return to their normal forms.

On the distant moon where Firelord attempts to rise, we see that he's been joined by none other than the Beyonder, who has recently made his way to Earth and taken on human form in order to better understand those he once conscripted into fighting a "secret war." But though the Beyonder stands ready to assist the Avengers, Firelord's words inadvertently guarantee that Nebula will not be captured this day.

Though try telling the Avengers that their target will elude capture, as they plow through the resistance they encounter on Sanctuary II and have already (thanks to Starfox) taken measures to ensure that Nebula won't escape. Yet Nebula makes a dramatic announcement that gives her an edge over her captor that might let her slip away, after all--that is, until the Beyonder arrives to "stop her."

At this point, the story ends rather abruptly, as the Secret Wars II crossover event is given precedence and practically hijacks the closing panels with teasers to the reader to learn more about what's going on with the Beyonder--who, by the way, might have been coaxed to return Nebula to the Avengers' custody had Starfox and Captain Marvel not decided it was more important to berate him. At the tail-end of a battle so hard-fought, their frustration is understandable--though it would be difficult to impossible to imagine Captain America (as written by Stern) reacting in the same manner. (Steve Englehart's Cap, perhaps.)

Nebula would go on to become involved in the Infinity Gauntlet saga, as well as being instrumental in the disbanding of the Avengers.  Nebula's plots may not have always met with success, but she became pretty adept at having the last laugh.

The Avengers #260

Script: Roger Stern
Breakdowns: John Buscema
Finisher: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Jim Novak