Monday, February 29, 2016

Where Waits Death!

In a way it feels strange to follow up on Fantastic Four Annual #6 with a tale that never actually happened (though the Watcher would no doubt claim otherwise). In the annual, we were provided with a happy ending at being witness to the successful birth of Sue Richards' son, with Reed, the proud father, greeting both mother and child with a mixture of joy and gratitude (and probably a little relief mixed in). But since the story avoided the death of Sue by the slimmest of margins, there was perhaps another story waiting to be told which would reveal a more tragic ending to this tale--where the male members of the FF, in a race against time, were too late in returning from a crucial mission with a control element which would have increased Sue's chances of survival. And fifteen years later, in Marvel's popular What If title, we see that story come to fruition.

Thanks to the dire nature of this tale, we see some ground covered (sorry, an unfortunate pun) that the original story, in its breakneck pace to obtain the necessary element to save Sue's life, wasn't able (or willing) to spend time on. You might even say that the What If version serves as the "director's cut" of the original story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As is the case with such cuts that offer added material, some of the additional scenes in the newer story don't necessarily fit well, with a few of them dependent on context--while others add considerably to the drama and fill in the conspicuous gaps in the original story, scenes that were never addressed but perhaps should have been. For the most part, though, the story is an opportunity to see the members of the FF brought to their lowest point by the loss of one of their own, and through no one's fault in particular--though as we'll see, that's an assessment that Reed Richards will flatly reject.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Clash Out Of Legend!

It seems unthinkable that, up until the 1980s, there was as yet no battle on the record books between the invincible Iron Man and his villainous armored counterpart, Dr. Doom--each man an electronics genius, and each wearing a formidable suit of armor that would have ensured such a meeting to be a clash of titans. All we really had was their "clash" from a 1976 issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, which took place while Doom was becoming involved in a power play of the undersea warlord, Attuma--a one-page skirmish occurring while Iron Man's armor was damaged and barely operational, and which was over and done with before you could say "Bah!". But surely it was well past time for a proper match-up between these two determined men, and with proper stakes involved.

And "time" becomes the key to their long-awaited face-off, finally taking shape in late 1981 in a two-part story that pits these two armored figures against one another and ends up thrusting them headlong into the 6th century.

But rather than take the route that the SVTU story chose and abruptly halted before the encounter truly began, co-plotters David Michelinie (scripter) and Bob Layton (finisher) make full use of both of these complicated and seasoned characters and craft a well-thought-out tale which factors in their individual strengths as well as their flaws. That's especially good news for those of us who are intrigued with Doom and his reasons for acting as he does, for Doom is given a generous amount of story space here that not only plays off of Iron Man well, but also enhances the overall story to a great degree. In fact, thanks to our two talented co-plotters, the characterization given Doom lets him all but walk away with this tale, all by himself.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Death Stalks The Gods of Asgard!

As much as the Asgardians thrive on battle, even they had to be a little war-weary following their deadly conflict with the forces of the serpent god of death, Seth--capped off by an equally fierce struggle with Surtur, the fire-demon. Both foes were vanquished--but the dual attacks had taken their toll. The forces of Asgard suffered heavy casualties; Odin, weakened by his ordeal, was in need of his "Odin-sleep," which would replenish his power but a slumber which was expected to last for years in his present condition; the God of Thunder, Thor, has been experiencing strange, inexplicable bouts of dizziness and weakness; while Asgard, in the process of being rebuilt, hopelessly drifts between dimensions due to the rainbow bridge having been destroyed.

Suffice to say that the Asgardians are ill-prepared to face a powerful new foe at their gates--none other than the living death that walks!

Sure, you may think Annihilus is outnumbered, and outpowered when facing the gods of Asgard--but this creature will conduct a wave of terror and death that even this realm's brave warriors will find both monstrous and unstoppable.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Revised Marvel Universe

Along with Stan Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics series that went on to spawn a look at villains as well as throwing a spotlight on the distaff characters of the company's books, there were two one-shot comics published in 2010 that featured their own origin profiles of various characters. And they obviously didn't see a need to reinvent the wheel when it came to their respective titles.

What sets them apart from other origins efforts is their attempt to break with the past. Since many of the characters profiled had been around for decades, the contributing writers make an effort in the revised origins not to lock the heroes into any set time frame. With some heroes, their origins were fine as is. Captain America, for example, could have been floating around in ice for any number of years and been awakened at any time; Spider-Man's uncle could have been murdered in 1990 just as well as 1962; in Stephen Strange's case, car accidents didn't only happen in the '60s; and the Avengers could have affixed their charter with whatever year their date stamp was set at.

Naturally, however, a few of them needed to have their origins revised to a "one size fits all" style that would omit inconvenient details which would have locked them into a certain time period and would stand the test of time from that point on. The Fantastic Four would be one of the stand-outs, since their conversation about beating "the commies" to the moon--and later, "the reds" to the stars--dates the group to the 1960s no matter how it's phrased. But only a slight adjustment is needed to bring them into the 21st century.

(One has to wonder just why Reed's project was being cancelled by the government, if he's considered such a brilliant scientist. There's no logic to the government building a starship all the way to launch-ready status and then cancelling the entire project; on the other hand, many such instances have occurred with expensive military aircraft, both in the U.S. and abroad.)

Nick Fury, of course, can't be fighting in World War II, and yet be in his late 40s/early 50s when he's tapped to be the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 2000s. But if an experimental formula worked for Steve Rogers...

And just as with Cap, it looks like Fury is good to go for at least the next few decades.

Tony Stark was also tied to a wartime period--in his case, the Vietnam War, where shrapnel from a booby-trap-triggered explosion forced him to design his Iron Man armor while a prisoner of the enemy. But war spans the decades, unfortunately--and such conflicts don't have to have a historic name to stand in for the cause of Stark's transformation.

We could also assume that the Hulk's origin can be plugged into any year, if we omit Igor's plot; and after all, Rick Jones can drive onto a bomb test site in whatever year we want to place him. But that raises the question of why the bomb test wasn't aborted when Banner raced out to get him to safety; and regardless, Rick being a teenager locks the Hulk into that year, presenting the Hulk's origin with the problem these books are trying to bypass.

Strangely, though, some origins in these books are unnecessarily tweaked, while others are prone to errors. Doom, for instance, is still shown to be conducting his miscalculated experiment to contact the netherworld, but in the revised version the purpose of his experiment is slightly changed.

It's unclear whether the origin is keeping the same angle of the netherworld, or just boiling the situation down to Doom's ego--but the result is the same. Doom is expelled, he meets up with the monks, his armor is made, and he eventually winds up in Latveria. Why bother with such a small adjustment?

The Black Panther's origin receives similar subtle treatment--the goal apparently being to provide a reason for T'Challa to leave Wakanda and become a hero in the States.

Moving to the X-Men origins book reveals other odd revisions. The Beast's experiment in finding the chemical cause of mutation is completely sandpapered over, with his change to bestial form and continued shifts now attributed to "misfortune," which appears to point to his own misjudgment but otherwise could mean anything.

With Emma Frost, she grieves over her fallen Hellions, slain by the Sentinels--when they were actually killed by time-traveler Trevor Fitzroy.

The Sub-Mariner gets a page in the X-Men origins book because it's maintained that he's a mutant--though in the absence of a story that shows either Leonard MacKenzie or Princess Fen being exposed to chemicals and/or radioactivity, I still prefer thinking of him as a hybrid.

Jean Grey's origin certainly raises an eyebrow or two, since it appears to jettison all that we've been told about the Phoenix force replacing her as a perfect copy of herself, while she was out of commission for the duration. In this version, it was Jean herself who became Phoenix, just as we originally thought she had in the first place.

For the most part, these one-page mini-dossiers are nicely put together, and give all of these characters simple, uncomplicated, baseline origins that suffice for any reader to become familiar with (or refamiliarize themselves with) for as long as the characters remain in demand.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Let There Be... Life!

The incredible 1968 Fantastic Four annual had all the makings of a momentous issue at the time, given the adventure packed into its bound pages as well as the turning point it may have represented for the FF reader--and all for a mere two bits. (By comparison, the Sunday edition of The New York Times around that time cost just about a nickel more.) It was also a milestone, since it would not only feature the birth of Reed and Sue Richards' child, but turn out to be artist Jack Kirby's final annual of original material for the title, as well.

By this time, readers had already become accustomed to the absence of Sue, by necessity on the inactive list, and become resigned to reading the adventures of the "Fantastic Three" for the duration.  (And perhaps for some time thereafter; it was all up in the air for readers as far as what direction the book would go in and how the team dynamic would change). Obviously, with Sue about to give birth, this 48-page story would be more of the same, with Reed, Ben, and Johnny going into action to deal with whatever conflict would be featured--or maybe just Ben and Johnny, since you'd think it would be a stretch for even Mr. Fantastic to find cause to leave his wife's side while she was about to go into labor. That's quite a large page count to have the Fantastic Four split down the middle and devote an annual's action sequences to only two of its members; on the other hand, Fantastic Four has often thrived around the ebb and flow of the lives of its characters and their real-world dilemmas and life changes, which gave them a lot of latitude with their readers and consequently provided fodder for the book's letters pages.

Fortunately, writer Stan Lee finds a way to meet readers halfway--or in this case, more than halfway, by necessitating Reed's involvement in the story outside of the hospital's waiting room, in a dramatic development involving complications that would see the lives of his wife and unborn child at stake. And the groundwork is laid in an earlier story, shortly before the annual sees print.

The ominous discovery isn't addressed further to any degree in the regular monthly title, as Lee reserves the annual's opening pages for meeting the crisis head-on--leaving Fantastic Four Annual #6 primed to take us on a tense and action-filled adventure from start to finish.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Dead On Arrival

Since alert reader Colin Jones had mentioned at one time that there was a dearth of coverage at the PPC of Deadpool--that is to say, no mention of the character at all (except in passing)--it seemed only fair to set aside some time to profile this slightly unhinged mercenary who went on to become a popular character in Marvel's stable. Deadpool is well named, presumably after the rather appalling game of "dead pool" where those who participate compete at guessing when someone will die. Come to think of it, we were all probably playing dead pool when watching classic Star Trek and coming across an episode where red-shirted security men were beaming down with the landing party--we knew that these officers were dead men walking, though without having seen the episode you couldn't really predict when they would end up biting the dust. (You could probably make the argument that they were dead the moment they stepped onto those transporter pads.)

Deadpool, created by the mind and pencils of artist Rob Liefeld and first scripted by Fabian Nicieza, made his first appearance in New Mutants #98, just as the title was on its way out (and subsequently rebooting into X-Force) and the man known as Cable was taking over as the "commander" of the students that Charles Xavier had been instructing. To complicate matters, Deadpool had been hired to kill Cable by a man known as "Mr. Tolliver," who turned out to be Cable's own son from the future. There were sparse comments on Deadpool in the letters page that covered the issue (along with sparse letters, actually, with the book's editors having one foot out the New Mutants door)--but while Deadpool wouldn't be fleshed out as a character in his own right until much later, he left a respectable first impression with readers.

"Another visually appealing individual, with some character to him, too. Please don't let this be the last we see of him." (CF: From your mouth to Marvel's ear, pal.)

Another writer makes an observation that mirrors my own about Deadpool's banter essentially making him a villainous Spider-Man: "I love him. He looks cool, is obviously the best at what he does, and he has a great attitude. And he's funny. He reminds me of Spidey, both visually and with his wisecracks. In fact, Deadpool is basically Spidey wielding instruments of death rather than webs. But it works! I was hoping he might join the New Mutants, but this seems unlikely since he's a bad guy, not a mutant, and because you guys are canceling this book."

"This book needs Deadpool. I don't think I can get by without a monthly dose of this character. If not in this book, use him somewhere else. Please don't let him fade from sight, he is way too interesting."

Considering how understated you may find Deadpool's introductory appearance in the scenes to follow, you could end up wrinkling your brow in confusion at these readers' over-the-moon high praise of the character. At any rate, Deadpool would continue in X-Force for a time, and of course find his way into many stories in the future.

From what I understand, Deadpool has two distinguishing features to his character. One, he has a healing factor (who doesn't?)--and two, his face is horribly disfigured behind that mask. With the film Deadpool now in release, it appears that actor Ryan Reynolds, playing the title role, is poised to have much greater success with this film than his turn in the disastrous Green Lantern--and he had already taken a spin as Deadpool in the 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But even in 2004, the character was already giving a nod to Reynolds, though not exactly a complimentary one.

As for his introduction into comicdom, Deadpool would do pretty well against Cable and his young charges with the element of surprise on his side. He also seems to be a walking weapons depot, to Cable's detriment.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

One Man-Monster, Special Delivery!

The so-called War of the Super-Villains taking place in the pages of Invincible Iron Man in 1975 took awhile to run its course--not because of the scope of the conflict or the egos of the villains involved, but mostly due to the book's creative team(s) not being able to meet their deadlines. (A situation which perhaps doesn't speak well of the story's plot, which read as if it were cobbled together.) And so sandwiched inbetween those issues were two inventory stories (diplomatically called "untold tales," which technically would be correct), along with a reprint of a prior story from early 1969--one with a very eye-catching cover which was deemed to be worthy of recycling.

Since this story originally took place in the early days of Iron Man's own title, and since the Hulk and Iron Man had never had it out in the pages of Tales of Suspense, it would be the first-ever solo match between the two (if you're not counting their slugfest in a 1964 alternate reality). And now, six years later, the issue is dug up and thrust into the middle of a story already in progress, without explanation--apparently banking on the still-enticing image of a Hulk/Iron Man throw-down to allow the title a 30-day reprieve in order to complete the next regular issue.

The story still holds up well, and so the reader who's never laid eyes on it before will probably find it sufficiently entertaining to tide them over. It's also mildly intriguing, given how unconventionally the two combatants are brought together. The fight would raise questions with Iron Man as to the Hulk's motives, to say nothing of his methods; but before the two meet in battle, we get a sense of the unusual circumstances involved when we see that a mysterious figure is responsible for the Hulk's appearance, one who arranges for the monster to be secretly brought to the states inside, of all things, a shipping crate. (At least they wouldn't have needed to bother stamping it "FRAGILE.")

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Spirit Of The Avengers

Once the Hulk angrily departed the Avengers, it was a chain of events involving the team's attempts to settle their affairs with the man-monster (and, along the way, the Sub-Mariner) which led to the fortuitous discovery of the still-alive form of Captain America, who would eventually take his place in their ranks--events which are abridged in writer Joe Casey's eight-part series from 2005, Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which supplements the scenes we're already familiar with from that period of Avengers history with behind-the-scenes new material that adds perspective and a sense of realism to what has gone before.  Casey's EMH project isn't focused on simply recreating those pages of Avengers with contemporary artwork (by Scott Kolins); rather, it probes the team in other areas and provides more food for thought, as the Avengers deal with the day-to-day details which must be seen to as they establish the foundation of their alliance, as well as face the repercussions of their stumbles.

We've already seen examples of each in the first issue of the series, as the team's reputation and trust that they were trying to build with the public had been severely damaged by the departure and subsequent rampages of the Hulk, a charter member of their team that they strongly vouched for and launched a media offensive around that stressed that the brute was no longer a threat. When they come across Cap, floating within a block of ice in the ocean, it comes at a time when they were having doubts as to whether or not to continue, following unsuccessful attempts to deal with the Hulk which could only call into question their ability to work as an effective (and trustworthy) team of heroes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fantastic Honeymooners

Reading Fantastic Four became a little more fun when marriage entered the picture for Reed and Sue--not only for the effect it had on themselves and the entire team, but also on we readers who enjoyed seeing this mag and these people evolve from issue to issue, rather than remain stagnant as other comics characters did and do. The team has had its flare-ups, and Reed and Sue in particular--but when wedding bells peeled and for some time thereafter, we saw some very nice moments featuring this famous New York couple.

Not that they didn't have their share of growing pains.

Of course, a marriage proposal works wonders for making two people put aside the quibbles of the past and focus on the things that bring them together.

(Yikes!  It's that easy capturing the Invisible Girl? Sue remaining quiet would have perhaps let her evade these guys and have a little more fun with her teasing--but who are we to horn in here?)

Later, as a honeymooner, Sue still knew how to shake things up with her family--and with a certain scientist, whom she concludes looks really funny when he's made to look like a klutz.

Not that Reed doesn't know how to unbutton the lab coat and have a little fun with his wife on the spur of the moment, though in this case with an ulterior motive--to help his best friend get past his brooding. At the same time, we also get to see the (pardon the pun) brief debut of Sue's mini-skirt costume--which, for Sue, must be the equivalent of June Cleaver getting the urge to breakdance in the Mayfield town square.

It's not really clear why Sue's legs were bare only for this issue, and then were swiftly covered up thereafter.  Sue is also more modest with the skirt's design on the issue's cover:

The skirt would return in the next few issues, but with her legs remaining clothed in her costume as usual. We could assume one of three reasons for the about-face: (a) Sue did say she wasn't finished with the design, so maybe the final look was what she intended all along; (b) Stan Lee took a look at Jack Kirby's (or the colorist's) new look for Sue and said, "Nah."; or (c) Reed put his foot down and decided he didn't want his wife parading around like that. Though option (c) would mean that Reed doesn't have half the brains we thought he did.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Wasps Can Assemble, Too, You Know

Just as was the case with Marvel's Greatest Comics and Marvel Tales reprinting the adventures of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (respectively), Marvel Triple Action quickly evolved as the reprint mag for the mighty Avengers in the 1970s, with the "triple" coming to represent individual Avengers featured in the issue. And just as with the other reprint titles, other artists were occasionally called upon to re-style the original cover for the story being featured.

In the following example, artists Sal Buscema and Frank Giacoia give their own interpretation of the original cover from Avengers #12 by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone, an issue where the Avengers battled the Red Ghost and the forces of the Mole Man.

As with other reprinted covers, whether sticking with the original concept or refashioned using new art, the layout of the more contemporary issue reduces the available space for the art, especially if additional captions are used. It's obvious right off the bat that the MTA masthead is huge--and when taking into account the assorted captions and copy, as well as the Marvel banner and the character head shots, Buscema's art looks somewhat crowded into what's essentially a large panel.

Yet by comparison, Kirby's art could likely accommodate just about all of the MTA additions, if we were to remove the story description and Marvel promotional blurb from the original cover. There's even sufficient room at the bottom for the MTA cover's descriptive material of the issue's villains, since there's only extraneous rubble beneath Thor's hammer strike that can be partially covered. (Though the Wasp looks like she's about to get nailed by a flying boulder, regardless!)

As for the action, the Avengers are clearly taking a more active part in the battle in Buscema's rendition, with the villains and their army of "Moloids" revealed as their foes. Kirby's depiction comes across as more dramatic, signalling the Avengers' resolve to protect the planet from the story's threat; but with that threat appearing to be massing behind them, it makes little sense for the Avengers to be galvanized into action while facing the opposite direction, with only Giant-Man's index finger to indicate a threat in the opposite direction. Why is the Earth hostage--and who or what holds it thus, and how? Buscema more realistically indicates the danger and magnitude of the crisis, as well as how fierce a struggle the Avengers face to overcome it. (The Wasp appears to be M.I.A.--maybe she was clocked by that boulder, after all.)

Was that so hard? A revised MTA cover to include the Wasp! Can you spot her?

Friday, February 12, 2016

It's Been A Blast--But You Bombed

I wish I could tell you that a match-up between Thor, the God of Thunder and Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst would be a battle to remember. But since his debut in the pages of Fantastic Four, Blastaar hasn't exactly seen his star on the rise. His next appearance in X-Men two years later gave us a good idea why that title was spiraling down to cancellation; and when he resurfaced in Marvel Team-Up to take on the Human Torch and the Hulk, it was under a human's control, forced to do his bidding in destroying a factory which belonged to a business finagler who had cheated him. The X-Men story was atrocious--the MTU story far less so--but the threat of Blastaar in both cases was handily dealt with and somewhat lackluster.

So why wouldn't an appearance in Mighty Thor help to bring this character back from the specter of oblivion and reinstate him as a major threat? Well, we could choose from among three reasons. First, Blastaar has an impressive track record--of being successfully fought off, that is. The FF dealt with him even with their attention divided by the Sandman; the X-Men's tactics were jokes, and still they outfought him; Medusa restrained him with her hair so that any blasts from his hands would cause him to be crushed; and the Hulk neutralized him by wrapping him up in adamantium alloy and hurling him into the ocean. (How's that for dismissing your foe?) Blastaar also proved in the X-Men story to be vulnerable to electrocution--so imagine how a god who can wield lightning will do against him.

Secondly, Blastaar, aside from his body's ability to resist temperature extremes, has one power to his credit: explosive bursts. As a would-be conqueror, that power alone doesn't cut it. There are other sources of explosive forces that can counter Blastaar, without even venturing into the super-powered options. And, granted, Thor has been dropped by explosions before, but he's also withstood such forces. What that means for Blastaar is that, while Blastaar might gain the upper hand at some point, soon enough Thor will overwhelm him.

Lastly, Blastaar is once again acting under orders of another--this time, I kid you not, a sentient factory. In fact, he's practically dedicated himself to this building's wishes and carrying out its orders (calling it "Master," just as he did with the Kree at an earlier time), mostly because the factory--F.A.U.S.T., the automated factory featured in the MTU story--has promised to install him as King of the Negative Zone. The Blastaar we remember would have destroyed this factory on the spot for making such a ludicrous promise without providing any specifics; instead, Blastaar gives the building his unwavering loyalty and carries out his orders without hesitation. You can almost see Blastaar's cred in world-conquering circles plummeting.

The only thing we truly have to look forward to in this fight is that Thor meets Blastaar after having dealt with the Stilt-Man--and we surely have to breathe a sigh of relief that Blastaar would have to be a step up from that.

Unfortunately, Thor would spend much of this issue pursuing information on F.A.U.S.T., leaving him only two brief intervals of battling Blastaar. In both instances, Thor never mixes it up with Blastaar to the extent we know he can; in fact, he seems to fight mostly a defensive battle, while writer Len Wein's main goal appears to be to move along the continuing plot involving F.A.U.S.T. Thor is even ejected from his first skirmish with the brute due to his hammer being out of his grasp for more than sixty seconds.

See what I mean? Nothing to write home about so far--except to maybe say, "Ma, I've been gypped!!" And when Thor later engages with Blastaar in force at the factory site, the fight is cut short after just a few panels when the central computer core of F.A.U.S.T. blasts off into orbit and Blastaar panics at being seemingly abandoned. But rather than Thor finishing things up with him, we'll find that Blastaar is dealt with by F.A.U.S.T. in absentia.

For what it's worth, Thor will be joined by Iron Man in taking the fight to F.A.U.S.T. in the next issue. As for Blastaar, you may or may not want to see him again--but after seeing how quickly he's gone downhill, you'll probably want something more substantive than Asst. Editor Jake Thomas's sales pitch as an incentive, eh?

Mighty Thor #270

Script: Len Wein
Pencils: Walt Simonson
Inks: Tony DeZuniga
Letterer: Joe Rosen