Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Cry Of Thunder--A Flash Of Silver!

Since we've already taken looks at some of Marvel's 25¢ issues from the price/format adjustment that briefly went into effect for its titles in late 1971, the PPC has come to the same conclusion about reviewing those issues as it once did about the consumption of potato chips or dark chocolate M&Ms: It's out of the question to stop with just one or two. Consequently, having started with the Iron Man and Fantastic Four stories published during that very strange Do-si-do interval, we move on to one of Marvel's heaviest hitters, which catches him in the middle of one of his most hard-fought battles.

As we can see from the cover image, we're actually getting two heavy hitters for the price of one, as the Silver Surfer enters the fray to take some of the heat off Thor, who continues to wage a hopeless battle with the formidable Durok, the Demolisher. It's become a no-win situation for the Thunder God, having sworn to put an end to the rule of evil Loki, who has usurped the throne of Asgard and wields the power of the stolen Odin-Ring; but thanks to his scheming step-brother, Thor has been diverted to Earth to head off the destructive power of Durok, a soulless creation of both the Ring and Karnilla, Queen of the Norns, sent to wreak havoc on the world of mortals, and, inevitably, to slay the God of Thunder.

In the meantime, Loki tightens his grip on Asgard, and prepares to wed Thor's betrothed, the lady Sif. These are dark days indeed for the valiant of Asgard, who must nevertheless bend their knee in allegiance to he who holds the Ring. Is there hope for either the realm eternal, or for its embattled prince who, on Earth, faces almost certain death?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Okay, Axis--Here We Come Again!

In the event that the Axis powers lost World War II, the insidious Red Skull had constructed and hidden no less than five "Sleepers"--doomsday devices that would be activated in twenty years' time to continue the fight of the Third Reich. Three of those Sleepers were even designed to merge and explode, blasting to the Earth's core to produce a thermal reaction powerful enough to destroy the entire planet. Yet the Skull didn't expect Captain America to be on hand when the devices emerged and began their missions of destruction--and in each case, Cap was able to foil the Sleeper's attack and thus deny the Nazis their vengeance.

But while the Allies were fighting on many fronts during the closing days of the war, their scientists were also hard at work on preparing their own contingency plan involving a Sleeper, to be sonically activated in the event of an Axis victory. Unlike the Nazi project, there would be no delay in the activation of the Allies' Sleeper--but since the Allies won the war, the sonic signal to wake the Sleeper was naturally never sent. However, as we'll discover, the Sleeper would indeed be awakened, thirty-five years later--and as far as the Sleeper's programming is concerned, the war goes on.

Which is our wake-up call to tackle another

Marvel Trivia Question

What name did the Allies give their Sleeper--and who or what awakened it?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Earth Trembles When... The Sleepers Strike!

The time was when you couldn't open a Captain America book without tripping over yet another Sleeper--a doomsday device created by the Red Skull during the time of Nazi Germany in the event of the Third Reich's downfall, activated by Nazi agents in twenty years' time to launch an offensive that would help the surviving Nazis to regain power. What the Skull didn't divulge to his patriotic subordinates, however, is that the Sleepers were instead designed to destroy the world, in a final rampage of vengeance.

There were technically five Sleepers in all, which would seem to indicate that the Skull had put into place one contingency plan after another after another, which under other circumstances would be almost laughable. Even in comics, it would have been improbable for Cap to come across a Sleeper on separate occasions, since you'd begin to think that building Sleepers was the only way the Red Skull spent his time during the war--which ties in with the notion that the Skull apparently thought it necessary to have other Sleepers built in case the original plan failed. Why not instead funnel those resources into your current problem: winning World War II? Why spend so much time and effort (and considerable secrecy) on projects that were contingent on the Germans losing the war?

The story of the Sleepers opens in 1966, as Cap shared one-half of the Tales Of Suspense title with Iron Man and a number of his stories recounted his wartime exploits. One of his memories of that period involves his final battle with the Red Skull during the closing days of the war, and a deadly warning that issues from his foe even as he may be breathing his last.

Heh heh--these may well have been the first *ahem* "sleeper agents."

Monday, March 28, 2016

...From Beyond The Stars!

As world conquerors go, the strategy of the Over-Mind for the planet Earth seems to be "All in good time," as carefully and methodically as he's proceeded thus far. When we first laid eyes on him, he appeared to be content to simply take over the minds of key political and military figures, thus controlling the planet through the pawns he had bent to his will. Yet when he took on the Fantastic Four for the first time, he had also begun influencing the general population of the entire city of New York, inciting many to violence and irrational behavior--particularly toward the FF, who found themselves having to keep at bay the very people they were trying to protect. Worse, the FF have no memory of their battle with the Over-Mind--a battle they decisively lost, followed by their foe erasing their memories of the encounter in order to keep them from interfering with his plans.

But while the Over-Mind continued to lay low, biding his time, the FF remain aware of his threat, thanks to two warnings they have received from third parties (the Watcher and Agatha Harkness)--neither warning providing details, but deadly serious in their implication that the Over-Mind presents a danger both deadly and imminent. At loose ends as to how to proceed without any substantive information on their foe, Reed Richards has petitioned Agatha Harkness to assist in contacting the Watcher, who then provides them with an extraordinary account of the Over-Mind's origin and the nature of his power. It was information that cost the team dearly; almost immediately after the Watcher had broken contact, Reed's mind was taken over by the Over-Mind, and he abandoned his teammates to flee and presumably take his place at the Over-Mind's side.

And now, with the Over-Mind poised to begin his conquest of Earth in earnest, the Fantastic Four must somehow mount an attack against a foe who has already demonstrated his superiority over them--a ruthless warrior created to crush world after world throughout the universe, in the name of the vengeance of the Eternals! What chance does even the world's greatest fighting team have, now bereft of the guidance and power of their leader?

Or have we miscounted?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Disparately Seeking Redemption

Given the nice selection of Incredible Hulk covers from 2002-2003 which featured the artwork of Kaare Andrews, it's difficult to settle on just one of those issues to sate one's curiosity as to how the quirky cover image could possibly relate to the story within, as they're all intriguing in that respect. Nevertheless, these were issues I made a decision to pass on while giving this reboot of the Hulk title a try, perhaps because they failed to make me curious about any developments of Bruce Banner and the Hulk that might be taking place in the story; indeed, a few covers even seemed to be mocking the tragic aspect of the title character, if still relating to the story's events in some fashion. However creative these covers were (and few could disagree with that), they arguably may not have been as successful at selling a reader on a Hulk story in the way that a more conventional cover might have been.

Case in point:

You would only nominally be able to apply the events of the story to such a farcical representation of certain elements of it; yet if you were to take a leap of faith and assume that the book's writer, artists, and editor(s) were still hard at work within at charting the course of the green goliath--as well as that of Bruce Banner--you would find quite a riveting story, one we've walked into the middle of with this issue. Banner, having arrived incognito in the town of Miser, Colorado, is caught in a hostage situation when "Harry," a laid-off worker at the end of his rope, decides to hold up a convenience store that Banner has stopped into--and the situation quickly escalates when Harry fires on and drops a police officer who has been an early responder.

The quality of story and art on this issue is nothing short of excellent, with writer Bruce Jones dealing in a number of characters in order to extend our interest beyond the normal focal point of Banner. There's Harry, of course, who has simply snapped and set the chain of events into motion; also, Lt. Sally Riker, an officer with S.W.A.T. experience who responds to this emergency but is unable to shake off the blame she carries from a botched assignment involving hostages at a bank robbery in Denver that resulted in the death of a young girl; soon to be joined by Special Agent Pratt, claiming to head up an F.B.I. task force that responds to the scene, but focused on his own agenda; and there's Banner, struggling to keep a low profile and, more importantly, struggling to keep the Hulk from emerging as a result of the chaos now erupting around him. Artists Lee Weeks and Tom Palmer, with their attention to detail, have brought all of these characters and scenery to life in a way that engages us in these unfolding events--and, thanks to Jones and the unhurried and steady way he paces the story, making us just as uncertain as everyone else as to whether or not the situation will end without bloodshed.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Indecipherable Hulk

A man of many talents, Canadian artist Kaare Andrews generally has a lot of irons in the fire at any given time, never being content to just coast on the wave of a completed project before feeling the itch to pursue another. Whatever hat(s) he chooses to wear, whether it's as a writer, or director, or penciller/painter (and there's likely even more ground to cover), his work is an attention-getter; and whether you are drawn to it or choose to pass on it, it will likely at least pique your interest, given how atypical his style is. Perhaps a fair way to describe the man is that his work is in a constant, unpredictable state of flux. Under other circumstances, such wording would generally apply to someone who hasn't quite settled on a definitive style which would be recognizable at a glance--but Andrews is proof that the creative outlet need not be pigeon-holed or otherwise limited in either its interpretation or its expression.

If you were reading comics just after the turn of the century (how strange it seems to put it that way!), you would have found Andrews' artistry on a number of covers of Incredible Hulk, as part of ... an experiment? a shift? in marketing the rebooted Hulk mag to presumably appeal to the reader who would buy the issue on impulse just to find out why the heck this out-of-the-ordinary imagery was being applied to a set-in-stone character like the Hulk. Thumbing through my own collection, it looks like I skipped this entire set of issues, and picked up the series again once things on the cover returned to a semblance of "normal." In my own defense, try not to peg me as a reader who never gives a new creative direction its chance; just a month after Andrews' work had run its course, I would wind up being burned by the Thunderbolts issues that began appearing on the shelves which exhibited similar head-scratching covers, though I braved the stories nonetheless. It turned out the book had inexplicably jettisoned its own title characters without warning, its new creative team and experimental story direction hijacking the title for the last few issues of its run. In the case of the Hulk title, it appears that I wasn't willing to brave the content within--better safe than sorry, as the saying goes, a lesson I failed to apply to Thunderbolts.  For what it's worth, I was dead wrong in the case of the Hulk.

The covers featuring Andrews' work also experimented with different styles of presenting the masthead, which at times made it seem like the Assistant Editors were again running the asylum. Once Andrews had moved on, that part of the shift in cover format continued on occasion, this time accompanied by artist Mike Deodato:

But as stunning as Deodato's work was (and is), there's something to be said for Andrews' unorthodox approach; so without further comment, have a look at a sampling of his intriguing covers. Would you have felt compelled to buy an issue, confident of the quality of the story inside--or do you instead come away with the impression that the new cover style is squandering the selling power of its title character ?

C'mon, let's dive into that cereal bowl! You may be surprised at how much it pops.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I'm Not The Conqueror You're Looking For

When the Over-Mind begins to take steps toward his conquest of the planet Earth, those who might have headed off his threat find themselves already having been dealt with--the Fantastic Four, in disarray from public opinion being turned against them following the Thing's battle with the incredible Hulk, and now formally charged as dangerous lawbreakers!

(We'll have to assume that the FF's lawyer has already come and gone, since even the FF wouldn't be equipped for going before an arraignment judge. Maybe they settled for a public defender? That had to make some court-appointed defense lawyer's day.)

We've seen in Part One of this story how the Fantastic Four have only recently received warnings of the Over-Mind's ominous threat, only to be waylaid by the law and subsequently arrested by order of New York City's mayor--himself under the mental control of the Over-Mind. But since bail has been granted, the team is released on its own recognizance pending their trial, which essentially provides Reed with what he requested from the Mayor--the time and freedom to investigate the threat of the Over-Mind. And he'll discover some of the answers he's looking for sooner than he thinks--because as this issue's cover indicates, it seems the Over-Mind is also eager to encounter the Fantastic Four.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

This One Has It All!

OR: "Pay No Attention To That Over-Mind Behind The Curtain..."

Following the incredible Thing vs. Hulk battle from mid-1971 in the pages of Fantastic Four, writer Stan Lee and artist John Buscema use the aftermath of the clash to segue us into a new saga featuring a brand-new villain--the Over-Mind, who has already begun using his power in small doses to inflame public opinion against the FF as a prelude to revealing himself and taking over the entire planet. And as was often the case with a master marketer like Lee, the issue's cover gives us the impression that we're getting a lot of bang for our hard-earned 15¢.

You almost get the feeling that Johnny Storm has been short-changed by the cover, considering "the Torch In Action!" is what we usually see from the Torch in a Fantastic Four story. You might as well replace the caption with "The Torch In Flight!", which seems to be all he's doing; but keep in mind that the Torch is on edge since the apparent death of his big buddy, the Thing, and we would indeed see evidence of that in this issue. Maybe "The Torch In Distress!" would be more accurate.

Otherwise, we're meant to take the cover at its word: "This One Has It All!" Starting with the shocking image from page one--the Thing, beaten by the Hulk at a crucial, distracting moment, and showing no sign of life to his girlfriend, and two members of his team who have arrived too late to save him.

FIRST UP: The Fate Of The Thing!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Attack of Zodiac!

Perhaps thanks to his exposure in an Avengers story from early 1970, the character of Captain Marvel was able to be brought back in an additional two issues of his original title following a five-month hiatus that saw him in publication limbo (presumably due to poor sales). If you're a struggling comics character, you arguably couldn't ask for a more high-profile appearance than to be featured in The Avengers; and while the issue's cover is a bit deceptive in its placement of Mar-vell, the story makes decent use of him in a promotional capacity while providing us with an action-packed Avengers tale in itself.

The issue's title, "Did You Hear The One About Scorpio?", surely leaves no doubt of this being a Roy Thomas story, the wording evidently holding a great deal of contemporary significance for Thomas but otherwise relating to neither Scorpio nor any events in the story whatsoever. Rather than dwell on it--and it's admittedly tempting to do so, in the way a puzzle challenges you to seek out its answer, which you know must exist in some form--we're better served proceeding further into the issue, where plenty of surprises await. For one, we finally have some follow-up to a loose end established when Captain America and Rick Jones parted ways, after a misunderstanding which resulted in Rick abandoning a promising stint as Cap's new partner (and subsequently making his way into the Thomas-scripted Captain Marvel title, and a different kind of partnership altogether). Cap swiftly clears up the matter for Rick in this story's opening pages, a brief scene which will loosely figure into this story's conclusion; and the two head into a hastily called Avengers meeting, where Rick, as usual, finds the welcome mat waiting for him.

These were the days when the book rarely if ever delved into the Avengers' relationship with the National Security Council, the government agency responsible for granting the team its valuable "Avengers priority" status and which would, under normal circumstances, insist that a free agent like Rick have no access to Avengers H.Q. or be privy to any meetings or briefings under its roof. Rick has come to see the Avengers on another matter--but instead of Jarvis seating him in the lounge until Cap and the others conclude their business, Rick is made to feel right at home, with the story quickly revving up from there.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Where You Lead, I Will Protest

Dissension In The Ranks

When resentments and disagreements boil over,
even allies can turn against each other in fierce battle that can bring the house down.

(And often does!)


Storm and Professor X

It would be difficult to imagine Storm not getting along with anyone in her adopted family of the X-Men--particularly her trusted teacher and friend, Charles Xavier, who was there with a sympathetic ear and a willingness to help when she was going through something of an identity crisis and adopted a new look to suit her changing mood and perception of self. Storm was at this time well into her role as the leader of the team (appointed by Xavier after the departure of Cyclops), while Xavier had only recently recovered the use of his legs. The changes that each had gone through gives them common ground for an interesting moment of bonding between them.

Just to give you a heads-up, you may want to make a mental note of the panels where Xavier states his reluctance to use his power to tamper with the minds of others. For now, it's important to establish that Xavier has come to care and have a good deal of respect for Ororo, while making it a point to solicit her input in matters where the team (or part of it) is being deployed.

Gee, not so much dissension between these two so far, is there? But their relationship will begin to change as Xavier, now walking and feeling able to be of more use to his students in the field, increasingly asserts himself in the decisions being made for the team, slowly finding himself reclaiming the role he'd held while directing the actions of the original X-Men--only this time, being able to physically join them on their missions, an experience he finds to be rewarding as well as exhilarating. That shift only intensifies when the X-Men are thrown into a crisis situation, where the team and Xavier find themselves abducted along with a number of other super-beings to a planet where the Beyonder has pitted his captives against each other in what would become known as the Secret Wars.

During this time where the X-Men must coordinate their participation with other heroes, Xavier becomes increasingly more forceful in having his students snap-to at his decisions in the role they take apart from the main forces in battle with each other, with the X-Men in effect becoming a strike team that he directs with full expectation of their compliance. (A shift in attitude which Cyclops, also present, attributes to the stakes involved and the very real possibility that none of them will make it out of this situation alive.) As for Storm, her position as team leader has apparently been superseded for the duration--and when Xavier sends the X-Men on yet another mission without informing her or effectively ceding control of the team's deployment to her, she reaches the limits of her patience and confronts him on the matter.

So much for Xavier's reluctance to tamper with others' minds; but while involved in this situation they've all been thrust into, that ship has already sailed, when Spider-Man, overhearing a conversation that Xavier had wished to be kept private, has his memories altered by Xavier, who had neither hesitation nor regret in doing so. The scene with Storm leaves us with the impression that he would act no less forcefully with her--a display that makes the strict, stern behavior he exhibited at times with the original X-Men seem pale by comparison.

By the time the crisis passes, it seems Xavier has grown more comfortable in his new role, so much so that he makes his position clear with Storm when he and the X-Men prepare to return to Earth.

As a result, the team becomes confused as to how they should respond when decisions are made and directives are given. For now, Storm chooses to take a back seat to Xavier--yet the problem has not simply gone away, as Xavier has at least the good sense to recognize.

Yet Xavier is indeed a powerful presence in the field, in regard to both his mental prowess and his ability to guide the team in combat--a fact which becomes apparent even to Storm, when the X-Men face the powerful mutant, Selene, and drive her off while saving the life of the newly arrived Rachel Summers.

The rift between these two, however, becomes moot and essentially forgotten when Storm is attacked by a government weapon (invented by Forge) which removes her mutant power, forcing her to reassess her life from this point forward. To that end, she makes the decision to return to her native Africa--and in the parting, she and Xavier appear to have found their footing with each other again.

In the interim, Nightcrawler is made the leader of the team for a brief time, while Xavier would find his own effectiveness limited due to injuries suffered from assailants during a street mugging--his worsening condition eventually forcing him to be retrieved by the Starjammers for treatment, which left Cyclops considering returning to the team to fill the gap. But by this time, Storm has returned, as well, and Cyclops has familial responsibilities which Storm knows he shouldn't shirk--and so she would successfully challenge Cyclops for the position of team leader, and, even though powerless, go on to distinguish herself in the role.

If it seems that Nightcrawler has been completely overlooked during these events, that's true; in fact, he offers no dissension whatsoever at being expected to step aside. (To be fair, let's see a show of hands of anyone who thinks Nightcrawler is team leader material--anybody? Writer Chris Claremont appeared to be in full agreement.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Failure... Death... Rebirth!

Yikes! In Parts 1 and 2 of Thor's struggle against the overwhelming power of the Celestials, the Thunder God was last seen piercing the armor of the massive form of Exitar*, the Exterminator, in an effort to reach its incredible mind and destroy it. Now, as we pick things up in the third and final installment to this story, Thor resolves to fight to the bitter end--bereft of his enchanted hammer and facing insurmountable odds, as the planet he fights for faces the imminent judgment of beings that have decreed its death!

(*If writer Tom DeFalco is going to go the alliteration route with this Celestial's name, I might have substituted "Extar," instead. Perhaps a little too obvious, in conjunction with his name's modifier; but the new name would no longer sound like this being's primary purpose is to take his leave.)

On the planet Pangoria, Thor has again encountered the aliens who once sought to pass judgment on Earth, convinced to depart only through intervention which offered them living examples of humanity's potential. There is no such saving grace on Pangoria, now that the Celestials have already begun the process of carrying out their decree--starting with encircling the planet with an energy barrier which prevents its inhabitants from fleeing their fate. An act which Pegas, the ruthless pirate who has usurped control of Pangoria and denied ship passage to those unfortunates who cannot meet his boarding price, seeks to bypass in order to save his own selfish life.

And what of Thor? The last we saw of him, he was under attack by a swarm of humanoids following the destruction of his hammer, Mjolnir--preventing him from approaching his target and completing his desperate task. Things indeed look hopeless--but try telling that to the raging god who refuses to fall, no matter how many foes are set against him. The battle is on!