Friday, June 30, 2017

...And One Shall Fall!

In Spider-Man's first meeting with Cain Marko, better known as the unstoppable Juggernaut, we saw the mysterious woman known as Madame Web fall victim to Marko's rampage, despite the wall-crawler's best efforts to halt his foe's approach. Marko, with no regard whatsoever for Madame Web's fate, departed the scene with disdain, considering the whole affair to be a waste of his time. But with the life of the one he swore to protect now hanging by a thread, the battle is not over for Spider-Man--and he sets out to stop one who cannot be stopped, or die in the attempt.

This two-part tale by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. is a fair profile of the why the Juggernaut is well-named, a character who over time has been so augmented with power and defenses that he's become ridiculously invincible. I imagine one reason why his appearances are somewhat limited is probably because considerable thought must be given as to how he's finally dealt with by the hero(es)--i.e., what vulnerability can be found or what clever ingenuity can be used to offset his threat. Given the virtual laundry list of powers he's equipped with, that's no small task. Created from the energies of the mystical ruby of Cytorrak, he's extraordinarily strong and possesses incalculable might and resistance... he wears formidable armor... he doesn't need to breathe or consume food or water... he's protected from mental assault by a helmet* (in addition to a skull cap) that is welded on and can't be removed**... he's been known to have telepathic abilities and even mystic powers... and, just for good measure, he has a personal force field. There's probably not much more that a writer could do for the character that this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach hasn't covered.

*I have no idea why a mere helmet would offer protection against a mental attack. By that logic, being in a sealed room would offer someone the same protection. By the way--are the mental waves bombarding him incapable of simply slipping in through the helmet's eye- and mouth-holes?

**That is, until it can.

And so, even emboldened by a desire to have the Juggernaut face the consequences of his actions, Spider-Man has his work cut out for him with this foe. Given the recurring theme of Spider-Man's sense of responsibility in protecting the innocent, we know he's likely to prevail in this uphill battle, despite the odds. The question is: what angle will Stern come up with to pull it off?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When Calls... Madame Web!

It all started when a friend of Peter Parker's, Debra Whitman, disclosed while taking a stroll through Chinatown that she had an appointment to see a psychic--a word that, in 1980, hadn't yet worked its way into the vernacular as a term applied to scam artists and held up to ridicule as late-late-night television fare where operators were standing by. In the late '70s and into the '80s, that sort of scoffing was usually reserved for "fortune tellers," whose gaudy signs you might see driving down the highway or in areas of town where tourists frequented. Yet Deb was about to break new ground with this particular clairvoyant, since Madame Web would turn out to be someone very different than anyone expected.

We'll never know why Deb made her appointment or what was on her mind that day--but when a group of armed men break into the offices of the Daily Globe (where Peter was currently employed) and kidnap someone they believe is the paper's publisher, K.J. Clayton, the amazing Spider-Man finds one of Madame Web's cards dropped at the scene. And that makes her a clue to be followed up on.

Of course, Madame Web is the sort of clue that can raise even more questions.

So join us, as we glimpse into the past and pose yet another

Marvel Trivia Question

What was the story with the woman known as--Madame Web?

Monday, June 26, 2017

This Ancient Evil!

By the time writer Chris Claremont had introduced the dreaded N'Garai in the pages of X-Men, we'd already become familiar with these "elder gods" in a previous story in Giant-Size Dracula, which had the building blocks of that race of demons but instead referred to them as the Triad--where one of their number, Y'Garon, separated from his "brothers," sought to bring them into our world. In these early stages of the concept, Claremont appeared to be undecided as to not only their name, but how these gods would cross over, initially making use of a "Sa'arpool" that required a sacrifice of human blood in order to fully open the gateway between worlds. The problem with that approach, however, is that it would be established there were only three such pools in existence; ergo, if you keep destroying them in your stories, then very soon your elder gods' menacing days will be over.

One Sa'arpool was destroyed in the Dracula story; another, opened by Kulan Gath, was sealed in a 1979 tale in Marvel Team-Up that featured Spider-Man, Red Sonja, and, this time by name, the N'Garai. But it was four years earlier when Claremont would "introduce" and formalize the existence of the N'Garai, when one of their number comes very close to wiping out the X-Men.

It's a great time for X-Men readers in 1975, as the new X-Men team is just starting to catch fire and the Claremont/Dave Cockrum team has things well in hand. Upcoming developments would include the return of the Sentinels, the introduction of the Shi'ar, and of course the first appearance of Phoenix, while Claremont was just starting to explore the X-Men individually and we began to see them more as characters in their own right instead of costumed replacements. In this issue alone, we see the first appearance of Moira MacTaggert... the roots of Storm's claustrophobia are alluded to... and Wolverine's own mysterious past begins to surface as he cuts loose (and then some) for the first time in front of his teammates as well as Xavier.

At this moment in time, the team--and its leader, Scott Summers, in particular--is reeling from the death of one of their own, the man known as Thunderbird, killed while on a mission to stop nuclear armageddon. And as Scott continues to beat himself up over it and finally erupts in a mixture of rage and anguish, he inadvertently provides the means for the N'Garai to walk the Earth once more.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Before The N'Garai There Were... The Triad!

Recently, we saw the menace of the deadly N'Garai--other-dimensional beings who once ruled the Earth in sadism and cruelty--return to threaten humanity once more, only to be thwarted by a certain amazing wall-crawler and his sword-wielding, Hyrkanian ally. The intention of their High Priest, Kulan Gath, was to open a Sa'arpool, the mystic gateway connecting their dimension to ours--the second of three such pools on Earth, and consequently destroyed in the attempt. With a race such as the N'Garai, you hold out hope that a Sa'arpool is the only means by which they can gain access to our world--but such proved not to be the case in their first incursion in late 1975, when one of their agents, Kierrok*, emerged from an ancient cairn a few miles from the X-Men's Westchester estate and launched a vicious attack against the team.

*Shades of "The Paradise Syndrome"!

When Charles Xavier attempted a mindprobe of Kierrok, he discovered some of the horror that the N'Garai represent.

Writer Chris Claremont, the creator of the N'Garai, went on to use these demons in not only Uncanny X-Men but also in Doctor Strange, with the race also making appearances in several other titles. Yet just over a year before their debut in the X-Men book, Claremont appeared to be giving the concept of the N'Garai a trial run in the pages of Giant-Size Dracula, though not by name. Instead, the elder gods were known as the Triad, with the oldest of them named Y'Garon. In that story, Y'Garon, like Gath, used a blood sacrifice to activate a Sa'arpool so that his "brothers"--trapped in another dimension by a holocaust that occurred eons ago--could return, and the Triad could once again become rulers of Earth. The similarities between the 1975 X-Men and 1974 GSD stories are obvious--while the similarity between the names "N'Garai" and "Y'Garon" is a bit beyond coincidental.

In the GSD story, it's of course Dracula who first faces the N'Garai the Triad--though for the most part, he deals with Y'Garon, a formidable opponent who begins his villainy by committing murders in the British town of Rutherton, murders that all leave the same telltale sign: all the bodies have been drained of blood. At first, Inspector Chelm of Scotland Yard suspects that Dracula, presumed dead, has returned; yet he feels compelled to bring in his assistant, psychometrist Kate Fraser, in order to dig more deeply into the circumstances of the case. It seems his instincts are correct, since it becomes apparent that none of the victims have risen again as vampires--and thus, someone other than a vampire is responsible.

Kate's only clue to the murderer is a strange object recovered from Annie Malcolm, the last young woman found dead--something that, when touched, gives Kate a vision of another attack from the distant past which involved Y'Garon. But it is an attack that will come to have ramifications for Dracula, as well.

And speaking of Dracula, he also becomes involved in the pursuit of the killer, though in his case it's to preserve his anonymity.

Meanwhile, Kate's investigation of Annie's death leads her to D'Aire Manor (what is it with Mr. Claremont and his fixation on apostrophes, anyway?), where she discovers not only a key to the object that Annie was carrying, but that Lord D'Aire seems adamant about keeping certain information from coming to light.

The paths of Dracula and Kate eventually cross, though in Dracula's case it's due to his need for blood and Kate being in close proximity. Fortunately for Kate, what saves her life is her uncanny resemblance to Dracula's former wife, Maria, whose life was taken by an enemy Turk named Turac--and then, fate intervenes, when the pair come across a dying man who warns Kate of danger from Y'Garon.

That evening, Kate has another psychometric vision of the warlord from the past who came into conflict with Y'Garon, as well as the young woman who is sacrificed in order to help attain the Triad's freedom--more similarities to Dracula's clash with Turac. Following the trance, Kate is visited and possessed by Y'Garon, who mesmerizes her into attempting to kill Dracula--but the attempt fails when Kate resists her instructions at the last moment, and she and Dracula begin to meet opposition headed by Lord D'Aire who wishes to reclaim Kate for Y'Garon.

Eventually, D'Aire gets the upper hand and captures Kate after arranging for her car to crash. But Y'Garon himself takes a hand in her recapture when Dracula confronts and deals with D'Aire--and when Y'Garon takes Dracula by surprise, his prowess proves to be too much for the vampire.

Upon awakening, Dracula heads directly to D'Aire Manor, where he makes sure that D'Aire pays the final price for defying him. But then, Y'Garon again surprises Dracula and manages to secure him well enough so that the ritual involving Kate can proceed undisturbed--and it's at that point that Dracula learns the full extent of Y'Garon's plans and how they involve both Kate and the Triad.

At the danger to Kate--to Maria, in Dracula's eyes--the vampire goes berserk and breaks free of his bindings (and apparently no longer affected by Y'Garon's incense). This time, Dracula's rage turns the tide, and it's Y'Garon (Turac, to Dracula) who falls. After that, it's curtains for "the brothers" (i.e., the Triad), when they become trapped in D'Aire Manor as the Sa'arpool explodes.

It's interesting to note that, for the purposes of this story, Claremont has limited the Triad to this one appearance. If there were a definite link between the Triad and the N'Garai, it would have been established in subsequent tales where the N'Garai began their rise as a threat; instead, only the concepts of the Sa'arpool and the "elder gods" have been brought forward, with a new threat in the form of the N'Garai incorporating them into their own profile. Of course, it was never established that the Triad were the sum total of the elder gods, so perhaps there are a lot of these elder beings banging on our dimensional doors, waiting to return; maybe they're part and parcel of the Dark Gods that Psyklop served.

The crisis over, Dracula's rage abates and he regains his faculties. But to keep his return a continued secret, he arranges for Kate to forget not only his own involvement in this affair but also Y'Garon's, instead planting in her mind the false memory that D'Aire was the insane culprit responsible for the murders. As for the N'Garai, it's clear that they ignored the fate of the Triad and resumed their attempts to cross over. As to their chances of success, perhaps it's not a question of if they'll succeed but when. After all, time is on their side.


Giant-Size Dracula #2

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Don Heck
Inks: Frank McLaughlin
Letterer: John Costanza

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sword Of The She-Devil!

If you were in the mood in 1979 for a comics tale that would just be an enjoyable, entertaining read that left you feeling satisfied, you probably thought that Marvel Team-Up #79 was a good deal for your hard-earned 35¢. Featuring the unlikely meeting between the amazing Spider-Man and the swordswoman from the fictional Hyborian Age known as Red Sonja, the story by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin hits the mark on all levels--taking itself seriously but not too seriously, while simply focusing on circumstances that are free of unnecessary complications. In layman's terms, "Sword of the She-Devil," while a tale of danger that threatens to release the deadly N'Garai into our dimension, is a great ride.

And all the pieces begin to fall in place almost immediately:

  • A security guard at the city's Metropolitan Museum of Art is suddenly possessed by emanations from an ancient amulet and frees it from its display casing;
  • Peter Parker, along with a "Daily Bugle" reporter, is assigned to investigate reports of trouble at said museum, while also finding that Mary Jane Watson has decided to tag along;
  • Peter slips inside the barricaded museum and investigates as Spider-Man, while MJ decides to follow;
  • Spider-Man runs into trouble;
  • MJ is distracted by another artifact that has a talent for possession;
  • Our villain is revealed; and
  • All hell breaks loose, in a very real sense.

And voilĂ , we have ourselves a party.

Taking into account the characters mentioned and all the possessions going on, you probably have a fair idea of how Sonja and the story's villain make their appearance; and given the time period that Sonja hails from, as well as the mention of the N'Garai, you may have guessed the villain's identity. But we'll cover all the bases one by one and see if you're on the right track.

First, the arrival at the museum, where it seems our villain--now using our hapless guard as his host body--has already been busy wreaking havoc and general chaos.

Next, Spider-Man runs into trouble, and ends up fighting for his life.

MJ, spotting Spidey from the shadows, wants to help but is unsure of what to do--when she's beckoned by a glowing sword that once belonged to you-know-who.

And suddenly, Spider-Man receives some savage assistance that helps him literally cut through his opposition.

(Say what you will about Byrne being a disappointing fit for Spider-Man in terms of not being able to give the character a sense of the dynamic, a failing he shared with Jack Kirby--no one's likely to have a problem with his portrayal of Red Sonja.)

With Sonja's entry into the fray, the story's villain is soon revealed--Kulan Gath, High Priest of the N'Garai, a sadistic, nasty piece of work who is utterly merciless with his foes. And thanks to Sonja herself, she and Spider-Man fall into his clutches.

Kulan Gath's goal is to open a Sa'arpool, a mystic gateway to the dimension of the N'Garai--elder gods whom Gath considers mankind's rightful rulers. To that end, he plans on sacrificing Spider-Man and Sonja, whose lives will open the Sa'arpool completely (at least I'm guessing that's how it's supposed to play out--Gath looks like he's already cracked open the gateway to an extent).

But Spider-Man breaks free of his bonds and manages to bring part of the ceiling down around Gath, allowing the wall-crawler to free Sonja. Gath, it goes without saying, is fit to be tied.

Eventually, Spider-Man is able to move the battle outside, where both Gath and Sonja finally realize that they're well past their own time--and in the confusion, Spider-Man brings the battle to an end. Though to Sonja's surprise, her ally has also brought an end to Gath.

When the dust settles, Spider-Man discovers that the security guard, now unconscious, has taken Gath's place--then turns and is astonished to see Sonja transform before his eyes to Mary Jane. All in all, a tidy wrap-up to a well-paced story that contained all the ingredients needed for a memorable comics tale.

What's Dracula's beef with the N'Garai?

Marvel Team-Up #79

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Serious Issues Call For A Serious Bar Tab

"...Things will never be the same."

Captain America uttered those words on the Kree homeworld of Hala following the events of "Operation: Galactic Storm," an effort by the Avengers to put a halt to the war between the Kree and the Shi'ar, two alien empires whose forces were using the star of Earth's solar system to power their respective stargates but endangering the sun's stability in the process. Failing in their mission, the Avengers were helpless as the Shi'ar detonated a nega-bomb which effectively destroyed the Kree empire and wiped out their civilization and population, with only a fraction of survivors left to witness the conquering Shi'ar take control of their worlds.

Fighting for their lives while battling forces of both empires, some of the Avengers began to question their own code of conduct, under which they had sworn never to kill while battling their foes. During the war, things eventually reached a point where Cap, the team leader at the time, found it necessary to make himself perfectly clear on the subject.

Following the nega-bomb's detonation, the Avengers, as well as the Kree who remained alive, discovered that it was the Kree Supreme Intelligence that had secretly manipulated both sides into declaring war, in an insane plot to rid the Kree of their evolutionary stagnation--a plot that cost the lives of untold billions. That revelation spurred those Avengers who had favored the use of deadly force to break ranks and seek out the Supreme Intelligence in order to end its life, convinced that the Intelligence was an artificial, non-living entity and not truly alive. Yet even when those Avengers discovered evidence that the Intelligence could well be a living organism, they nevertheless were resolved to complete their deadly task--and the Black Knight used his neural sword to make the fatal strike.

And so, with Operation: Galactic Storm concluded, Cap must face the grim task of how to reconcile what the Avengers have done with his own role on the team. Will things ever be the same again for the Avengers? How, exactly, does this team move forward from committing premeditated murder?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Things Will Never Be The Same

"Operation: Galactic Storm" was an ambitious crossover story from 1992 that spanned seven titles and nineteen issues during a three-month period--an event overshadowed somewhat by its title, which borrowed freely from the code name given the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. There are few if any direct parallels between that conflict and the circumstances of the comics story, since "Operation Desert Shield/Operation Desert Storm" involved mostly a show of force that led to combat operations that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi troops; while Operation: Galactic Storm, obviously taking place on a larger scale, has the Shi'ar and Kree empires at war and, incredibly, eventually leads to the near-genocide of the Kree. In the middle of the conflict are the Skrulls (no friends of the Kree, having in the past engaged in their own war with them), who work their wiles within the Shi'ar court to escalate the conflict--and the Avengers, who split into delegations and head to each race's homeworld in an effort to broker peace negotiations.

Needless to say, if a number of Marvel editors and writers take the time to conference and plan a three-month crossover event with the goal of escalating a war between two star-spanning empires, peace negotiations are going to fail--and fail they do.  Yet O:GS perhaps is best remembered for the Avengers turning the corner in their code of conduct, when a faction of the team decides to commit premeditated murder against the living entity known as the Kree Supreme Intelligence.

The Avengers move to intervene in the war when the conflict is brought to their doorstep, as both the Kree and the Shi'ar begin using stargates positioned in Earth's solar system to commit incursions against each other--gates that make use of the sun's energy for power and thereby endangering the star's stability. In the first Avengers issue which carries the O:GS banner, we get a sense of what's to come for the Avengers when they assemble following an incident in space, where a contingent of Avengers rescuing a Starcore crew were fired on by the Shi'ar; and when the Avengers penetrated the command ship and ordered the Shi'ar to stand down, Sersi threatened to destroy them all if they failed to comply.

You might think Cap is a fine one to talk about muck, given his own activities during World War II. Was he raising such objections when enemy installations were being blown up, the people inside them never given warning or the opportunity to evacuate? Did he ever chide snipers about murdering unsuspecting targets? Did he ever storm into command headquarters and demand to know why populated cities were being bombed? He's probably the last person to be galloping on such a high horse.

Cutting to the chase three months later (our time), the war reaches its climax when the Shi'ar detonate a nega-bomb that virtually wipes out the Kree to a man and reduces the empire to ruin. All has gone according to plan--but you may be surprised to find out the identity of that plan's true architect.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Comic For The More Mature Reader

Aside from its place in comics history as the title that gave us the first appearance of Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy has an interesting history all its own. Following in the footsteps of comics like Strange Tales, Tales Of Suspense, and others that told stories of the bizarre, the extraterrestrial, and the supernatural, the title was first billed as Amazing Adult Fantasy and attempted to market itself by targeting older and more sophisticated readers, featuring stories and art by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and a cover blurb that boasted, "The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence." (And in case you weren't intelligent enough to have spotted it on the cover, that caption was repeated on the issue's contents page.)

Picking up a copy, however, you'd be hard-pressed to pin down what set AAF apart from its similarly-themed predecessors. Each issue featured multiple tales; the stories contained shock endings, or something with a twist, or some other aspect that highlighted the unexpected; and the story titles were no more sophisticated than the bill you would find at a carnival sideshow. But Lee, in his description of the book in Origins Of Marvel Comics, seemed to feel he was producing something new and different--perhaps because he had chosen Ditko to handle the art exclusively as opposed to Jack Kirby or Don Heck, while also toning down the emphasis on colossal, world-conquering monsters.

To give you some perspective, AAF was launched at the same time that Marvel was just getting its feet wet with publishing super-hero titles, with AAF released just one month following the debut of Fantastic Four--though no doubt you were *ahem* intelligent enough to notice the incredible similarity in their logo styles. (Perhaps the real reason why "ADULT" appears to have been slapped onto the AAF masthead like an afterthought.) With heroes like Thor (in Journey Into Mystery), Ant-Man (Tales To Astonish), Iron Man (Tales Of Suspense), and The Avengers (in that order) not making their appearances until late 1962 and 1963, the only other "super-hero" title on the racks in the Marvel section was Incredible Hulk in May, 1962, putting it near the end of AAF's run in July. Aside from the lack of an unexpected twist in its continuing tale, Incredible Hulk (drawn by Ditko in its sixth and final issue) would have fit in AAF like a glove, with its lumbering monster who appeared at night and who was somehow a manifestation of the helpless scientist who found himself the victim of a living nightmare.

Lee's experiment with AAF appeared to be in jeopardy with its tenth issue, as Lee explains:

The reference Lee makes to soaring sales of "the superhero magazines" is unclear; the launch of Incredible Hulk was still two months away, which would have made Fantastic Four the only hero-based title on the racks. At that point the FF mag was on its fifth issue, and by most accounts sales of the book had indeed taken off quickly--but there was still no evidence to sustain the belief that AAF was bucking some sort of trend, unless Lee and publisher Martin Goodman were convinced by the sales of FF that super-hero comics were the company's future. (The disappointing sales of Incredible Hulk, cancelled after only six issues, certainly wouldn't have contributed to that decision.) In any event, AAF was marked for cancellation with its fifteenth issue--and with the mag's impending pull date, Lee saw the opportunity for another experiment.

Needless to say, that new character had a startling name--and this new hero would appeal to the average comic book buyer as no other(s) would.

Yet the new headliner for Amazing Fantasy, along with the book's (nicely) redesigned masthead, were only two of the changes made in a book that was no longer going to be produced--a dead-on-arrival status you'd never know by the promotional blitz indicated not only by the cover blurb promising "the NEW Amazing," but by the detailed note to readers inside:

Given that AF was, in Lee's words, "doomed... the last issue before its preordained demise," the assertion of the Editor's note that Marvel was taking their valued readers into their confidence, only to make implications of future issues that were never intended to materialize, is a perplexing choice of words. For instance, had Spider-Man flopped in his AF appearance, whatever readers were still on board with AF would have been abandoned, for all intents and purposes. If that behavior sounds familiar to you, you're probably thinking of Silver Surfer #18, where similar misleading methods were used to indicate that all was well with the mag.

Yet in terms of AF's sales, all certainly was well, as far as Lee and Goodman were concerned.

With the experiment of Amazing Adult Fantasy having eventually helped to point the company in its new direction, the rest of Marvel's monster mags fell in line in shifting to hero-based stories. By the time Amazing Spider-Man was launched, the new hero was joining Marvel's budding lineup of super-hero titles which now included Thor, Ant-Man, and the newly-appearing Iron Man, with the Avengers only a few months away--all spearheaded by the still-popular Fantastic Four title (which that month just happened to be making use of their popularity to provide new exposure for the incredible Hulk, making a guest appearance). In a sense, even though Amazing Spider-Man didn't make its appearance as a new title until after the fact, the character himself ended up playing an important part in the line of books that would define the company for decades to come. And isn't it cool, and fitting, that the word "Amazing" was transplanted to the masthead of Spidey's new series. ;)

The cover to AAF #9, alongside a variant cover by Daniel Brereton for the AAF Omnibus.