Monday, January 30, 2017

And In This Corner... Death!

By today's standards, and perhaps even those of a decade or two ago, the mid-1982 series Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions comes across as formulaic in terms of what a comics reader could expect from a story that featured such a roundup of Marvel characters all gathered under one roof to confront an imminent threat. That assessment would certainly apply to any story that had the cosmic gamer known as the Grandmaster as its protagonist--who by his very nature needed no variation from the life-or-death contests that are his stock in trade. At this point in time, the Grandmaster had only approached Kang the Conqueror and the Prime Mover to coax into playing his high-stakes game; in this latest series, his opponent would be an enigmatic figure only referred to as the Unknown, whom sharp-eyed long-time readers are going to almost instantly recognize as the hooded representation of Death.

From the dramatic layout of its first issue's cover, the scope of this story would appear to vastly differ from the Grandmaster's other two incursions involving humans, though the cover's wording is playing fast and loose with the story's premise. At first glance, it seems that the Grandmaster's human "players" will involve not just a few Avengers or Defenders, but "every single super hero on Earth--in the greatest battle of all!", a bold caption which doesn't hold up to scrutiny. While every super hero on the planet is indeed present and accounted for, the contest itself pares down the actual contestants substantially, with only twenty-four heroes being chosen by both the Grandmaster and the Unknown to participate. As to whether the story presents the greatest battle of all, that would be debatable, even at its conclusion; regardless, this saga is hardly the three-issue free-for-all that its cover implies. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Yet there are a few points we can check off which distinguish this series:
☑ It's the first of Marvel's titles to bear the "limited series" label--a format which would go on to be a popular seller, featuring a number of Marvel's characters in various stories that would often expand on events in their regular monthly titles.

☑ The nature of this gathering shows all the signs of being the precursor to Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, which would be published two years later--another series that had large groups of heroes whisked away from Earth, materializing in a "way station" in space, and confronted with a power that held their collective fate in its hands, a process that also presented different heroes meeting and working with each other for the first time.

☑ Collectively, the three issues feature a six-page compendium of every Marvel hero that exists to date--presumably spearheaded by Mark Gruenwald, who edited the project and would go on to serve the company as a virtual archivist of its characters, history, and continuity. This listing has been referred to as the prototype of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a 15-issue series which would see its first issue published just six months later and would include a wide variety of Marvel's creations--villains and heroes alike, as well as other characters, entities, or aliens that were a part of Marvel stories.

As for the story itself, there's little to surprise the reader that he or she hasn't seen replayed in half a dozen epics or crossover events where heroes gather en masse, though this series may well have inadvertently paved the way for those stories. Unfortunately, with the two-page spread in the center of its first issue, the series already plays its trump card when it features an impressive gathering of all the heroes assembled in the same chamber, followed by three or so pages of first-time meetings and touching base with a few major characters--and that would be that, as far as the bulk of this series' huge cast of characters is concerned. Given how whittled down the story becomes from that point, this three-issue mini-series could just as well have been adapted to an Annual or a What If story, though it seems clear the company's intent was to reach a wider audience with a stand-alone title.

But let's explore what we have--as we begin with our two protagonists, who set the stage for what's to come.

Nearly half of the series' first issue is spent by writer Bill Mantlo establishing the mood by presenting the startling disappearances of the heroes from all around the world, their activities suddenly interrupted by a strange glow surrounding them and causing them to vanish from sight. Mantlo has proven to have a generally good feel for virtually all of Marvel's characters, even those he's never scripted before--and in these introductory scenes, he really needs to do little beyond touching base with the characters and perhaps plugging in one or two things that their current readers might expect from their behavior and/or speech. Mantlo covers a lot of ground in terms of the number of characters he sets aside these scenes for (perhaps too much ground--four or five such scenes would probably have sufficed, followed by a panel that made it clear how widespread the situation was); and while seeing one Marvel hero after another falling victim to this glow-effect may be tedious for those readers whose monthly Marvel reading list is diverse, Mantlo does a decent job of striking a balance between the seasoned reader and the one who may have had less exposure to Marvel's books. For those latter readers, the sales opportunity this kind of build-up provides was likely considered time well spent.

The opening pages could probably have settled on any of the super-groups to get the ball rolling, but whatever lottery was drawn in that respect came up in the Avengers' favor.

The Avengers' impromptu horseplay is interrupted by their abduction off-planet--and in the pages that follow, similar scenes occur for the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Dr. Strange, the Inhumans, et al.

Interestingly, Mantlo and artist John Romita, Jr. also introduce six new heroes with these scenes--all of whom, as it happens, will be among the 24 heroes selected to compete in this contest.

Until at last, all of the heroes of Marvel are assembled in the "arena" suddenly appearing in Earth orbit, with no inkling as to why they were abducted or who is responsible. But it isn't long before both questions are responded to, with the appearance of the two beings who have linked the heroes' compliance with their plans for the possible fate of the entire human race.

(I'd argue that Red Wolf doesn't fit the Unknown's criterion of having super-human powers, nor do the Black Widow, the Black Knight, the Falcon, and probably a few others in this roll call. On the other hand, if she'd simply substituted the word "heroes," a great deal of non-powered humans from Earth would have been snagged, as well. How about putting it this way, instead: "...those possessing super-human powers, and their comrades"?)

And so the 24 players are chosen, and Part 1 of this series comes to a close.

Death is astonishingly glib in these scenes, which in hindsight is unusual behavior for a character who would in later appearances bide her time in silence while waiting for circumstances to turn in her favor.

Since whatever selection process the Grandmaster and the Unknown are using to choose their players has been sidestepped and most of the choices are made off-panel, the two beings could just as easily have selected their respective players without holding this cattle call and assembling every candidate in an orbiting arena. It seems clear that the reasoning boils down to nothing more than giving this series marquee value--which eventually comes across as disingenuous, as the remaining heroes play absolutely no further role in the story once the wheels are in motion and the eight teams of three are dispatched. Story plotters Mantlo, Gruenwald, and Steven Grant may have felt that a mix of twenty-four heroes in battle would still give readers enough bang for their buck, but the level of presumption here is disturbing.

As for the stakes of this story, it's not clear just why these heroes are in such dire straits. We know the stakes for the Grandmaster--but where the heroes are concerned, they don't seem to have a horse in this race other than the fact that they're compelled to participate, otherwise the people of Earth will remain in stasis forever. Consider: The goal is for either team of heroes to retrieve the sections of the Golden Globe; whichever team retrieves the most sections determines the winner, whether it's the Unknown or the Grandmaster. But to the heroes, whoever the victor turns out to be really doesn't matter, does it? In either outcome, the humans on Earth will be released from stasis. Why should either team care who finds the most sections, or who succeeds in returning with them? Why wage battle with each other in efforts to be the first to obtain their prize? In the end, the only one at risk is the Grandmaster, a being whose fate means nothing to the assembled heroes; indeed, it never occurs to them to even discuss the matter, even when both the Grandmaster and the Unknown sweeten the deal.

Parts 2 and 3, then, have the heroes arriving in their designated regions to begin their searches. None of them suggest joining forces to locate their section of the Golden Globe; in fact, many of them insist on operating alone, even when they're part of the same team, which almost guarantees that they'll run into someone from the opposing team who's also going solo, each determined to be the first to seize the object they seek.

In typical fashion, the resulting battles pit individuals of similar abilities against each other when possible--Wolverine vs. the Black Panther, Storm vs. Blitzkrieg, Daredevil vs. Iron Fist, Angel vs. Peregrine, Darkstar vs. Sunfire.

After much (truly pointless) battle, all pieces are retrieved and delivered to the game's primary opponents. But though the Grandmaster appears to be the victor, the heroes suspect that the Unknown may have rigged the game--and the Invisible Woman summons the courage to see this being revealed for who she is.

It's then that Death plays her hand, and reveals the "catch" of the Grandmaster's victory: even though Death loses, she ultimately wins, though technically this match must be declared a draw (as if Death cares at this point). Death yet retains an Elder as her prize; only the name of the deceased has changed, with the Collector instead of the Grandmaster walking away from this conflict.

Although the Collector may not want to celebrate his good fortune just yet, if Death's cold embrace of him and her departing words are any indication.

The heroes, fortunately, have nothing to complain about (except for those who were dragged to this arena for no reason except to cool their heels while this drama played out), sent on their way as if their involvement really didn't amount to anything. It's certainly hard to argue with that.

For what it's worth, this series received a follow-up in five years, within the annuals of both West Coast Avengers and The Avengers--where the Grandmaster is revealed to have played a greater game than anyone realized.

Thanks to a last-ditch gambit by Hawkeye, the Grandmaster is diverted from going through with his mad plan--and as a result, Death turns the tables on him, though her "punishment" is to exile him from her realm and thus return him to immortal life. Taking that into account, and despite the failure of his scheme to recreate the Big Bang, you could say that the Grandmaster eventually came out a winner in the events that the Contest of Champions set in motion, all things considered--outmaneuvering even Death in the final analysis.

Looking back, it's interesting to wonder how Contest of Champions could have been tweaked to deal in all the heroes in the arena, as we were initially led to believe would be the case. According to the compendium listing of heroes this series includes, there are 140 active heroes on the grid (though there seems to be at least three times that number in that two-page arena shot). We've already seen how awkward it is to isolate only twenty-four from that number and set them against each other--would involving all of them work in any way, without an adversary such as Thanos or the Kree to contend against? In terms of bringing everyone to the party, it's hard to top the 1965 FF Annual, which pulled off that kind of mass assemblage of super-powered opponents beautifully; but as far as hero vs. hero vs. hero on such a scale, we can probably instead use Civil War as an example of how well it works (or doesn't, as the case may be), a saga which at least included some decent character moments to chew on and avoided the spectacle aspect of Contest Of Champions.

At any rate, one final note: Wasn't it curious that the Watcher didn't show up to witness this event? All the heroes of Earth, disappearing from the planet and forced to participate in an event beyond their control? Perhaps the Watcher realized before any of us that the situation wasn't as eventful as it appeared to be at first glance.

As of mid-1982, the complete listing of Marvel heroes!

Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions #s 1-3

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: John Romita Jr. (Pt. 1 additional art by Bob Layton)
Inks: Pablo Marcos
Letterer: Joe Rosen

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