Friday, July 29, 2016

The Enemy Within!

There were at least two occasions when the Illuminati--the clandestine group consisting of Marvel's oldest super-heroes who would meet privately to raise concerns or handle matters without disclosure to their friends or peers--chose to part company and go their separate ways. One was after a falling out they had over the decision to send the Hulk away from Earth to another world; the other was when Iron Man sought to gain their support for the Superhuman Registration Act, in a meeting which caused deep divisions among them and led them to all but formally disband.

The events of the "civil war" that resulted from factions of the heroes forming to oppose each other as a result of the SRA are a matter of record, and have been for almost ten years (our time). Yet after the fallout of that conflict, and other upheavals that took place around the same period, the members of the Illuminati would find themselves called to a meeting once again--this time to discuss a threat that might already have reached the point of being too late to stop.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

When An Office Dies!

Following the opening of Anthony Stark's new company, Stark Enterprises, a surprise attack was launched by a mysterious device delivered to the scene which almost cost the lives of hundreds of people present--including Stark's friend, Jim Rhodes, who was trapped inside the machine and was barely able to disarm it before Iron Man would have been forced to destroy it. We later discovered the device was the calling card of Stark's unscrupulous business rival, Justin Hammer--a warning to Stark to keep out of Hammer's affairs.

Stark left the matter at that--but given the lives that were put at risk in the attack, including the life of his best friend, would we instead expect Stark to handle this kind of threat more directly? Sending a message of his own to back off, and making it clear to Hammer in no uncertain terms that he's capable of giving as good as he gets?

Let's look at a situation where Stark was forced to conduct business dealings with a man as careless with the welfare of others and as self-serving in his own way as Hammer. Our man of the hour, Mr. Benchley, had made a loan to Stark's butler, Edwin Jarvis, where Jarvis had used stock he owned in Stark International as collateral--shares which Stark needs to keep out of unfriendly hands and is forced to retrieve. Unfortunately, Benchley doesn't seem like the sympathetic type.

To be fair, Benchley's arrangement with Jarvis was handled legally, and its terms were clear in how his collateral could be forfeited, though Stark is perhaps correct in labelling Benchley as a loan shark. Regardless, given the importance of those shares, Stark resorts to sending a more *ahem* persuasive negotiator to appeal to Benchley's better nature. Assuming he has one.

In spite of the condition of his wall where his office window was once located, Benchley has made his position clear--so that should be that, right? But having Iron Man unleashed in your office is another matter--and Justin Hammer, like our poor Mr. Benchley, would likely be just as... impressed with his visitor's way of making his point.

While we're reasonably sure of what Benchley's response might normally be here, the fact is that he couldn't comply even he if wanted to, since he'd already sold the stock shares that Iron Man was interested in. And now, to add insult to injury, Stark will have to refurbish this guy's office--which he was probably going to do anyway, only now he'll have nothing to show for it.

Of course, Justin Hammer is not Mr. Benchley, and perhaps Stark is looking to take down Hammer conclusively, in a way that takes into account his entire operation worldwide and makes sure that he's shut down for good--as opposed to taking proportional shots at him that don't amount to much, and would simply be sinking to Hammer's level. It would be awhile before Hammer would face that kind of reckoning; in the meantime, each of these men would continue to be a thorn in the other's side for some time to come.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Enter At Your Own Risk--The Adap-tor!

Remember the 1980s David Michelinie run on Iron Man, when it was actually fun reading about Tony Stark, Jim Rhodes, and the other assorted characters who made up Stark's business world? Before the events of Civil War soured us on the man? Back in the days of Stark International, we were only beginning to see the Tony Stark who would later emerge to hammer the Superhuman Registration Act into law--the days when he engaged in the so-called Armor Wars in the belief that he was doing what was right no matter how many lines he had to cross. For the most part, Iron Man, month after month, was a great read at the time, with excellent stories and artwork. We may have almost admired Stark then, given all that he'd built and accomplished, to say nothing of the man's brilliance and his drive to help bring the world into a better future.

Michelinie took a hiatus from the book when Stark relapsed into alcoholism, and Rhodes took his place as Iron Man--but when that long series of excruciating stories had played out and Stark began rebuilding both himself and his company, Michelinie returned to give us a sense of the Tony Stark we held in such esteem, which held true as well for the armored hero he would suit up as. Iron Man was hitting its stride, again--and the book likely found its way into pull stacks once more.

We could take a look at almost any story from this rebirth period and experience that magic again--but it seems appropriate to feature the issue where Stark publicly relaunches Stark Enterprises and makes that announcement to both the press and to the world, as the story contains many of the elements that Michelinie brought to the table for Stark and his alter-ego. And judging by its cover, it's already looking like it's shaping up to be quite a ride, eh?

Especially for the hapless Mr. Rhodes!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

My Childhood--My Prison!

Whatever our problems in life, we can at least be glad of one thing--we can thank our lucky stars that we're not one of the uncanny Inhumans. Think about it: a race abandoned by their own creators, who might still return at some point (and do) to reclaim them and have them fulfill their purpose as a warrior subset of an alien empire. A race that requires you by law to immerse yourself in a substance that alters your genetic structure and transforms you into a new form of life, with no say in the matter and with no knowledge of the outcome. A race that uses slave labor, and thinks that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. A race that sees a good deal of conflict with outsiders, despite being hidden in the Himalayas. A race under the rule of one of two monarchs at any given time: one that can shatter your entire city (along with a few surrounding mountains) with the slightest uttered word, or a madman who treats his subjects like cattle and wants to destroy all human life on the planet.

We can even take a closer look at one of those men, who has personal experience with the kind of treatment you can expect as an Inhuman--the one and only Black Bolt, who was the subject of genetic experimentation even before he was born. And when your own parents have no regard for your well-being before they've even met you, you probably shouldn't expect your adolescence to fill up a scrapbook of happy memories.

Meet Agon and Rynda, our proud parents, the father being both the ruler of Attilan and its chief geneticist. Both appear to be in the middle of important research, their subject undergoing intense testing. But their subject happens to be their infant son, whom we'll come to know as Black Bolt--and his initial impressions of his nursing environment are likely the stuff of nightmares. After all, how many parents pull a gun on their child to provide a demonstration?

"...we've overtaxed him! He's growing bad-tempered! We must remember... he's still only an infant! He's about to start crying!" Good lord, what a model mother we have here. We can't see her hands in the scene, but what do you want to bet she's taking notes??

(And one more notch in the minus column against the Inhumans--they were apparently responsible for the word "smithereens.")

What's truly astonishing about this tale by Stan Lee is that Lee insists on wrapping the Inhumans within a cloak of grandeur, glory and wonder, despite the evidence of our own eyes. In a later story by writer Joe Pokaski, where Black Bolt is the subject of mental interrogation by the Skrulls, Pokaski distills Lee's trappings of science and advancement down to the (forgive the word) human level, as Black Bolt, who has managed to save himself from being crushed in that lab accident, is put into solitary confinement in order to prevent his power from endangering the city and its populace, where he'll stay for his entire childhood.

Some geneticists. No way of undoing the harm you've done to your son? No law that sanctions you for your actions? If anyone deserves to be confined without visitors, it's arguably these consummate parents. It's good to be the ruler, eh?

On Black Bolt's 19th birthday, he's finally allowed to be freed from his quarters, and meet his family. You'd think that his father would open that door and deliver the news in person, wrapping his son in a strong hug and escorting him out into the sunlight--but why bother with all of that sentiment when a viewscreen will do?

"...I bid you farewell!" Good heavens, let's at least be grateful the man thought to check in on his son at all.

It would appear that Black Bolt has seen his family in person at least once--but why not whenever they wished to see him, or to keep him company? Why was he forced to be alone for almost two decades? Pokaski takes liberties with Lee's story as far as giving the guy a break in that respect, at least.

Of course, no reunion of the Royal Family would be complete without the black sheep of the family, Maximus--who isn't yet "mad," but close enough to have his power-hungry eyes on the throne and seeing to it that his brother is kept out of the running even as he gets his first taste of freedom.

Medusa and the others quickly see to it that Maximus is disarmed and subdued--but Black Bolt's origin tale is ended on a dour note, which seems appropriate for this race of beings who seem to have so little to look forward to as a people and who all too often live up to their name.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Return Of The Trikon!

Like the Enclave, the mysterious organization that began its existence in shadows before its activities were later continued and its origins were finally investigated and revealed, the Trikon got its start as a presumably deadly but unknown threat that would receive mention in one story, only to drop off the Marvel map and resurface years later in another, well after many readers had forgotten all about it. Both groups rose from seeds laid in the 1970s--and, coincidentally, both had dissimilar ties to the uncanny Inhumans. But where nearly twelve years would pass before the Enclave would turn up again and have its loose ends tied up, it would take nearly twice as long for the Trikon to have its cobwebs blown off by a different writer and receive further exposure.

For each of these groups, their respective timelines are spread out like the pieces of one large puzzle, and assembling them in stages makes for a confusing history where either the pieces don't quite fit together, or sometimes pieces are missing and left out. For instance, the Trikon first appear in an Inhumans story by Gerry Conway in Amazing Adventures in late 1971 as a looming and deadly threat that was apparently planned to be revealed once the current storyline with Magneto ran its course.

As part of that story, the amnesiac Black Bolt is abducted off the street by Magneto's henchmen (er, henchmutants), leaving behind Joey, the young boy that Black Bolt had befriended; and when Joey regains consciousness, the Trikon appear and whisk him away, for reasons unknown.

And unknown those reasons stayed. The Inhumans feature in Amazing Adventures ends abruptly at the conclusion of the Magneto tale, with the Beast taking their place in a new series of stories; while the running Inhumans story involving Black Bolt segues to and is wrapped up in the Avengers issue published that same month, with the exception of Joey's capture by the Trikon being completely discarded, as if it never happened.

And then along comes The Inhumans: The Untold Saga in early 1990, where writer Lou Mougin and artist Richard Howell have taken on the ambitious task of piecing together the events preceding the Inhumans' first meeting with the Fantastic Four. Why were the Inhumans hiding out in slums in New York City, from someone called the Seeker? Why was Medusa--at the time on the run after the rest of her team, the Frightful Four, had been defeated by the FF--afraid of being caught by Gorgon? Why was Medusa's criminal past dropped like a safe by writer Stan Lee without explanation? How did Maximus usurp the rule of Black Bolt? A lot of questions, and more, that weren't addressed by Lee in the 1965-66 original story, and this tale answers them all--and, just for kicks, it also explains the Trikon, in limbo nearly nineteen years after their debut.

Friday, July 22, 2016

When Your Enemy Is Your Biggest Fan

Recently, we saw the villain known as the Porcupine make what might seem to be a ridiculous claim on his way to hitting the mat in defeat:

We know that in his first time out, the Porcupine was stopped by Ant-Man, considered a gnat by many of his enemies, at least in the derogatory sense. As for actual gnats, who knows--maybe the Porcupine can't be stopped by gnats, though that's probably something he won't want to list on his resume. As for his claim that he was once a match for Giant-Man, it may have one or two holes in it. First of course would be the fact that he was put in the slammer by Giant-Man's more diminutive predecessor.

And if he's not a match for Ant-Man, it's hard to believe that he could challenge Giant-Man. True, he made a go of it--and for a minute or two it seemed he might triumph. But near-victory isn't victory, and the Porcupine wasn't able to pull off a win against Giant-Man.  But to be fair, we should examine the situation in more detail.

After he'd (presumably) served his time after his defeat by Ant-Man and was back in his lab, the Porcupine finally devised a weapon for one of his multi-purpose quills that would give him the edge over Giant-Man, providing he could get close enough to use it. And you'll never guess who he enlists to unknowingly help him get his foot in the door.

Yes, the Giant-Man Fan Club. A hero whose exploits are so famous that there are Giant-Man fan clubs all over the country. (Chicago! Los Angeles! New York! Dallas! Philadelphia! Washington!) Not to mention that in large cities such as New York, Giant-Man and the Wasp are so popular that there are a number of local club chapters, as well. I think that's pretty impressive. All Captain America has is Rick's teen brigade in his corner. You can't help but wonder what all of these fan clubs (and their chapters) did when Giant-Man left the Avengers and called it quits for awhile. Did they all disband? Shrink out of sight? (heh heh) And what did these fan clubs do with their time? Do they answer Giant-Man's fan mail? Meet regularly? Carry membership cards proudly? The truth is a little more disturbing: Their time is spent in unashamed role-playing.

Yes, I hear you--"Wow!  Where do I sign up?" you're asking yourself. Well, pick a chapter, any chapter. But you'll probably get put on a waiting list, unless you're pals with someone who knows someone who once said "hi" to Rick Jones.

Two issues later, apparently a flood of letters must have poured into Marvel's offices from real kids who were embarrassed to see themselves portrayed like this, kids who wouldn't be caught dead putting on a bucket and dressing up as one of Giant-Man's enemies--either because (a) Giant-Man had the most ludicrous enemies ever, (b) no real kid would ever flash a GMFC membership card at school, or (c) there would be absolutely nothing to do at a Giant-Man fan club meeting because Game Boy consoles or Pokemon Go hadn't been invented yet. (It's also telling that none of these kids are dressing up as either Giant-Man or the Wasp.) And so some cosmetic changes were made to appease a lot of humiliated readers, and suddenly these fan clubs had more mature members who actually hung out with the heroes and didn't dress up like the Human Turnip Top.

(Still, can we please ditch the buttons and customized jackets and vests?)

Fortunately for the Porcupine, he can still deal with naive kids who are so ga-ga over Giant-Man and the Wasp that they'll buy any bill of goods from a prospective fan club applicant--and before you know it, the Porcupine's little Trojan Horse tactic succeeds, and he's able to get close enough to Giant-Man (who's injured his ankle from--what else?--an exhibition) to make his move.

His ruse now executed, the Porcupine first gets rid of the Wasp by having her make a trip to his booby-trapped car as part of a pretense for retrieving a gift for the pair of heroes; then, he fires his sleeping gas, and (thank goodness for small favors) drops all the fan club members. But Giant-Man is resourceful enough to escape the effects of the gas, and the Porcupine is forced to withdraw with the Wasp.

Back at his lab, the Porcupine involves the Wasp in a trick that will reveal to him Giant-Man's secret identity by tracking her back to their home in New Jersey. (How about unmasking the Wasp for starters? Nooooo, that would make it too easy to connect the dots, and we can't have that.)

Finally, the assault on Giant-Man begins, with the Wasp quickly being taken out by... wait for it... fly paper. From then on, to heck with his injured ankle--Giant-Man is in this fight to the finish. And it's nearly his finish, since the Porcupine's gas nearly does him in.

On the verge of being taken into custody once the tide turns, the cagey Porcupine then attempts one last deception, this time seizing a number of Giant-Man's growth capsules. But it looks like even the brilliant Porcupine can't account for everything--and he literally goes down to defeat.

So we'd have to call things even as far as how formidable the Porcupine was against Giant-Man--after all, it's really his own mistake that saw to his demise, though it looked like Giant-Man had things pretty much wrapped up prior to that. At any rate, let's hope that his GMFC membership card carries some clout wherever he's headed.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tomorrow Dies Today!

I don't recall ever hearing a critical word said of Avengers #167, and that's likely with good reason. There seems to be general consensus that the issue can do no wrong, an assessment that I happen to agree with. Published in early 1978, its story falls in the middle (give or take a couple of issues) of writer Jim Shooter's well-received run on the book, and not only begins a new extended arc that would involve a major incursion from a new Avengers foe, but would also deal in the deadly Ultron and end his threat once and for all. (Well, at least the Avengers will be convinced that's the case. As the saying goes, "That trick never works!") Top it off with the return of Hawkeye, and you've got the makings of a nice TPB for your bookshelf.

Also, as its cover makes clear, the issue pushes the appearance of some guest-stars that have been showing up in Marvel stories with some frequency lately--though it doesn't look like the Avengers have put out the welcome mat for them, does it??

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

When Demands Galactus!

Around the time of the first Thor film in 2011, a new comics series was launched that continued the story of Asgard's existence on Earth in the vicinity of the rural town of Broxton, Oklahoma. Written by Matt Fraction with art by Olivier Coipel and Mark Morales et al., Thor and the other Asgardians enjoy a fascinating interaction with the locals, whose beliefs in Christianity are now coming into conflict with the existence of gods on their doorstep. The first six issues of this series are an excellent lead-off, as the Asgardians face a deadly challenge from none other than Galactus and the Silver Surfer, who have come for a source of power that the Asgardians will fight to the last man to keep from them.

Fraction is of the same school as Brian Bendis when it comes to scripting, practicing a "less is more" approach to the comics of the 21st century and interjecting dialog and/or narrative sparsely, while depending on the story's art to set the pace and tone and to indicate the flow of events. As a result, whatever dialog does come down the pipe makes more of impact and allows the characters to leave a distinct impression with the reader. That kind of approach to scripting has both its pros and cons--though in terms of Thor, where we've likely had our fill of "thees" and "thous" and other aspects of Asgardian antiquated speech that have the characters saying so much and yet so little, it's a refreshing change for one of Marvel's most recognized and familiar figures. Yet Fraction's dialog is there when it counts--for instance, the handling of a character such as Volstagg, whose candid and boisterous opinions would be wasted if not allowed to flourish.

You'll also notice that Fraction's Thor has little to nothing in common with the Thor of the 20th century. The Thor that charges into battle in this story and moves about among his fellows has none of the temperance of the Avenger in him, no history with the Surfer that he cares to recall, and no ties to Earth to speak of; he's an Asgardian through and through, with a warrior's mind of his own and a keen awareness of his status among the gods. It's as if he was never sent to Earth to learn humility; indeed, humility would be ill-suited to this god, who takes on his foes with a mixture of arrogance and relish. His relationship with Odin is also far from subservient--rather, contentious and proud, almost one of equals, though falling in line and joining his father on the front lines without a second thought. Thor sets an example for his fellow Asgardians as both independent warrior and prince of the realm, and both Odin and Thor are generally pleased with their relationship.

As for the Surfer and Galactus, they make a credible threat to both Thor and Odin, as the Surfer is once more the herald of Galactus and unquestionably loyal to him. In fact, the Surfer has never seemed more of a herald--doing the bulk of the "leg-work" for Galactus, of course, but also interacting with the species he encounters on target worlds and giving them full warning of what's to come, rather than simply signalling Galactus of the discovery of a world that will suit his needs.

In the case of the Asgardians, the Surfer fulfilling his role as herald makes for a seat-gripping encounter with a warrior race which would naturally take the Surfer's words as a challenge--for here he comes not to warn, but to demand on behalf of his master. It's one of the most riveting scenes of this type that I can recall, as you'd expect the likely response from the Asgardians would be to "shoot the messenger" and send the Surfer's head back to his master on a silver platter. Yet just as the Surfer acts for Galactus, Thor is there to deliver the Asgardian response for Odin, in a confrontation that isn't meant to settle the matter so much as make it clear where both sides stand. For the Asgardians, it's probably the only response that is possible for an intruder who expects compliance.

But what is this "seed" that is at the heart of this story? That's an appropriate way of putting it, since it was recovered at Odin's orders from the heart of Yggdrasil, the world tree which was split in a prior conflict and now is a geyser of space-time from which the "worldheart" seed has been retrieved. To Galactus, the seed represents a source of power which would provide the world devourer with an unending source of life-energy, allowing him to abandon his devastation of planets forever. But the real question is: Why does Odin wish to possess it? Odin claims that the Surfer wasn't telling the whole truth--that Galactus' motives are more selfish and are based on the desire for immortality, claims that no doubt serve to motivate Odin's troops and Thor in particular. Odin's reasons for wanting to keep the seed for Asgard are more obscure, at least for the time being. One aspect of Odin's character which Fraction has chosen to retain is Odin's penchant for weaving intricate plans and keeping his own counsel as to their details and execution. Unfortunately, as we've seen many times in the past, the all-father's plans often involve breaking a few eggs to make the omelette.

Aside from the people of Broxton and their pastor, another character you might find interesting is Fraction's treatment of Loki, who has been reverted to a small boy and who is mischievous yet well-meaning--in this case, taking it upon himself to seek another solution to this conflict under the noses of everyone. The attraction here is how Thor, Sif, and others interact with Loki and vice versa, providing some humorous moments that come part and parcel with a boy-god who gets underfoot and tries to help, though whose middle name more often than not seems to be "trouble." The scenes featuring both Loki and the Broxton locals fit in splendidly with the main plot without detracting from it, and eventually coalescing with it in its closing pages.

Then of course there's the confrontation of Odin and his hand-picked group of warriors with the Surfer and Galactus, with really only Thor and Sif taking point with the Surfer while Odin and Galactus face off. It's here where Fraction's minimalist approach to dialog perhaps falls short of heightening the "main event," since a battle between Galactus and Odin would be rife with accusations and posturing. (Though when you think about it, a battle occurring in the void of space would normally be bereft of dialog, or sound of any kind.) Galactus has never been at a loss for words--yet throughout this story, Fraction has let the Surfer do the lion's share of the talking, even in scenes involving just the two of them. But with Galactus at last front and center, the time for the Surfer speaking for his master has passed, and Fraction misses a priceless opportunity for Odin and Galactus to have it out with words as well as actions. Instead, their war is confined to mutual telepathy, with both prying into each other's thoughts to find some weakness or vulnerability to exploit.

Finally, Odin loses his temper and, capitalizing on an earlier devastating strike by Thor who gets past the Surfer's guard and makes a hit on Galactus that has to be seen to be believed, launches an attack on Galactus that has them both hurtling to Earth and crash-landing on the surface. As a result, Odin sinks into his Odin-sleep--and, in his stupor, at last hints at his reasons for seizing and holding onto the world seed.

Yet Galactus, though severely weakened, rises--and, despite the Surfer striving to convince him otherwise, is determined to fight on and take possession of the seed. A final ploy by Odin has the Destroyer, armed with Thor's hammer, standing before Galactus in defiance (along with two others, though you should experience Fraction's scene in full to appreciate it); but before the point of no return is reached, the Surfer senses what we already know--that Loki has accomplished his secretive goal, retrieving the seed himself and hiding it once again in the heart of Yggdrasil, so that, as he puts it, "Hid it--no seed--no war--no death..."

And so this war is now at an impasse, with neither side being able to locate the seed and claim it for their own. Interestingly, it's the Surfer who Fraction has, along with Volstagg, made even marginally consistent with his past character, a being who retains his moral center and who strives to bring peace to a situation (when he's not throwing down a gauntlet, that is) and balance it with justice. Here, the words and character of Pastor Mike have not escaped his notice--and, all things considered, he crafts a compromise that suits all of the aggrieved parties.

It's an acceptable cap to a contentious story by Fraction, where neither party gets what they coveted, yet each knows that further fighting is pointless since they cannot reach it now, or even find it. Yet it seems apparent that Odin is possibly playing for time--time that is on his side, since the seed resides within Yggdrasil, and Yggdrasil resides (more or less) within the realm of Asgard, and he has millennia to devise another of his dreaded plans to retrieve it as well as to deal with the Surfer, who is now mortal (more or less). As for Mike, his ascendance really doesn't address what was important to him--the status quo of the people of Broxton vis-à-vis the continued presence of the Asgardians. On the other hand, his experience with Galactus may enlighten him as far as the words spoken to him by Volstagg as the crisis reached its climax, words that serve as well as any to take us out.

The Mighty Thor #s 1-6

Script: Matt Fraction
Pencils: Olivier Coipel (with Khoi Pham on #5)
Inks: Mark Morales (with Dexter Vines on #5, joined by Cam Smith on #6)
Letterer: Joe Sabino