Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The All-New, All-Insane Captain Marvel

In late 2002, the current Captain Marvel title took a sharp but interesting change in direction which almost made it seem as if the previous 35 issues never happened. With that change came the decision to "relaunch" the book with issue #36, with only a change in its masthead design and its numbering reset to "1" to mark the occasion. If memory serves, there were a number of other titles experiencing the same flux in issue numbering, particularly those books that had reached such a pinnacle in numbering that they were also being rebooted as first issues--though not long after, Marvel appeared to renege, and adopted a dual numbering display which kept the new numbering sequence but also displayed the issue number as it would have appeared had the book never been rebooted. And for added confusion, eventually the book numbering was dialed back to the original sequence. It was a dizzying time to be a comic book collector.

The Captain Marvel relaunch, however, at least began with the dual numbering display, perhaps to make sure that any readers who overlooked Assistant Editor Marc Sumerak's notice on the final page of the prior issue that the book was "starting over" wouldn't be confused. Though if you were a reader of other Marvel titles, that ship likely already sailed.

As for the title character himself--Genis, the "son" of Mar-vell created by Elysius of Titan with technology and clone material from his predecessor after his death--writer Peter David makes a number of changes that return the book's focus to Captain Marvel, who had virtually become a supporting character in his own mag. Gone for the duration were characters like Moondragon and Rick's wife, Marlo, whose histrionics (along with Rick's) reduced Genis to a cosmically-aware stand-in who would save the day mostly on cue when the others' drama had been exhausted.

And in case you're thinking that "histrionics" is overstating the matter:

Peter David and Chris Claremont--at times it seemed as if they were two sides of the same coin.

The character of Genis first caught everyone's eye when, as Legacy, he donned the same nega-bands that his father wore and swore to carry on his tradition of heroism. But being awarded his own title in 2000 was likely in response to the bump he experienced from his exposure in the Avengers Forever ten-issue series, after which he merged with Rick Jones in order to save Rick's life--a process which also triggered Genis's latent cosmic awareness. Factor in the decision of Monica Rambeau to pass on her title of Captain Marvel to Genis (while rechristening herself as "Photon"), and we had ourselves a new hero, and a new series.

Yet in 2002, after 30+ issues, it becomes apparent that a change in direction is needed, though some changes are already in effect by the time of the 2002 relaunch. For instance, while it's true that Genis and Rick still switch atoms with each other, it's more of a voluntary act than anything triggered by X number of hours, with the two having agreed to switch when no later than 24 hours have elapsed. Nor does the one being switched out wind up in the Negative Zone; instead, they're sent to the Microverse, in what seems a "been there/done that" wave-off to the N-Zone, with its explosive atmospheres and distortion zones and its living death that walks having apparently overstayed their welcome.

But also, Captain Marvel has become impossibly powerful (by "manipulating photonic energy"--that's all we're really told), and has been using his cosmic awareness far more proactively than Mar-vell did by keeping it constantly "on" and tuned to disturbances anywhere in the universe that require his intervention--much like the Sentry's behavior on Earth, but obviously on a much broader scale. Yet, just as was the case with the Sentry, Genis's power threatens to overwhelm him--and therein lies part of the problem.

And then there are the choices he must make. In an ideal situation, his cosmic awareness--which now is akin to prescience and lets him see the past, present, and future in relation to the subject--would function in a way that allows him to act responsibly when he intervenes in a situation, by giving him the whole picture all at once. Yet that isn't the case; instead, he sees enough to know he must act, but must count on his interpretation of what he's become "aware" of to act responsibly. As a result, the use of his power in this way is almost certain to yield tragic results.

For instance, given that he can't be in two places at once, Genis is inevitably forced to choose between using his might to halt an invasion of a world by the Brotherhood of the Badoon, or instead to prevent an alien girl from being beaten to death by her boyfriend. To him, the choice is clear: thousands of lives at stake, vs. the life of one girl. He chooses the Badoon conflict--and only realizes after the fact the repercussions of his misjudgment.

Overwhelmed by his power, Genis crashes to the ground and lies in a catatonic state for days, until Rick is finally able to snap him out of it. Unfortunately, the damage is done, with Genis having been driven insane--a startling development to be sure, but, from a reader's standpoint, fascinating at the same time. But his state of mind doesn't become clear until we see how his priorities have changed--specifically, exploring the use of his cosmic awareness in ways that demonstrate a voluntary and deliberate pivot from goals and methods that once were altruistic and instead substitute the sadistic.

Frank Castle, a/k/a the Punisher, sums up Genis's new character colloquially, but right on the money: "A lot of these supertypes are a few bricks shy, but I think this guy's missing a whole fireplace."

Genis's intervention begins by effectively dismantling the gunman Tomas's advantage of using a human shield, by using his cosmic awareness to completely invalidate the hostage's self-worth. And in Genis's current state of mind, you can probably guess what comes next.

With that, Genis incinerates Mr. Fisher, and allows Tomas to flee, to Castle's outrage. But Castle isn't given much time to process the scene, when Genis reveals his true purpose in seeking him out: to learn from him, having found appealing the Punisher's method of going about his business in an organized, ruthless fashion. That doesn't bode well for the future vis-à-vis Genis--but at this point, any reader of the previous Captain Marvel series is probably more interested in the character than they've been in quite awhile. In fact, more than a few of us were probably checking the cover again for a MAX Comics designation, Marvel's imprint for its mature content comics line.

With Genis's help, Castle is led to confront Tomas's employer, in a scene which makes Mr. Fisher's execution look pale by comparison. At the end, Genis grants Castle a few moments of cosmic awareness to close the circle of events--and it becomes clear that Genis is now on a course which he has every intention of embracing.

By the third issue, David's changes for Captain Marvel take visible shape as well, with a new costume designed by Alex Ross that returns the character to his Kree roots--which Genis himself never had, though that's beside the point. The nostalgia card for Captain Marvel has only been played through Mar-vell's dealings with the Kree both prior to and following his metamorphosis by Eon, but never to the extent of donning his old uniform and reclaiming his commission. Those opportunities present themselves a month later, when Genis confronts a Kree task force sent to conquer a planet strategically placed in relation to the Skrull Empire--a planet the Kree are shocked to discover has already fallen to a ruthless, and familiar, conqueror.

Genis's time in Ross's modified uniform would last another fifteen issues before it finally played out, by which time the character's supporting cast had already begun returning to the book with a roar. By the time Genis ditched his Kree uniform and returned to being Genis--"Marv is still somewhat nuts; he's simply playing it closer to the vest and is channeling his energies in positive instead of negative directions," as the book's introductory narrative puts it--it really does feel as if the insanity angle was ready to be retired. There were only so many of David's quips that Genis could recite while constantly getting the drop on his enemies--and only so many scenes of Captain Marvel's superior might crushing them--before it all started becoming stale. Captain Marvel was never in danger of being surprised or outgunned, with the combined assaults of entire star fleets proving to be wasted effort before he would turn the tables on those who opposed him--appearing in their midst with calm, mocking words meant to punctuate the fact that these otherwise formidable races were helpless against his power. Captain Marvel had a bad habit of winning all the time, and his wit well was second to none--which proved entertaining until it wasn't, and limited him to repeating the same behavior ad nauseam.

Captain Marvel ended its second run after 25 issues (or 60 issues, depending on which numbering system you're paying attention to), as David humorously writes finis to the character by breaking the fourth wall and folding the comic in a striking-the-set issue. By this time, there's a new Captain Marvel (Phyla, his sister), who exits with Moondragon to new adventures. As for Genis, who might have once held promise but whose staying power didn't hold up as expected, David dresses down the character in brutally blunt language: "[Your readers] became bored. Bored because they didn't know what to make of you. Your unpredictability became your liability. Furthermore, they didn't really care about you that much in the first place. That, combined with boredom, was fatal." Good lord--after taking on and writing this character's entire series from the ground up, whose fault is that? There were readers paying between $2.25-$2.99 a pop every month who probably wished they'd had a little of that cosmic awareness themselves, so they would have known going in that even the book's writer would come to condemn the direction the character had taken.

A few pages from Alex Ross's sketchbook on the new Captain Marvel.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

It's Official: Thor Is A Mercenary Teddy Bear

Homage covers are always eye-catching and often an unexpected surprise, since they can trickle down from any comic book and are completely unpredictable as to what title (or company) they'll show up in--but it's fair to assume that even artist Walt Simonson was pleasantly surprised at the mileage his cover for Mighty Thor #337 has received through the years.

The issue was Simonson's debut as the title's regular writer, while returning as artist from a previous 1977-78 run in the book. Since that time, a number of artists have paid tribute to Simonson's cover--and while many other characters have cracked, crumbled, ripped, or smashed through their own masthead in one way or another, there's no denying Simonson's distinctive pose for the Thunder God--or rather, for Beta Ray Bill, the alien who surprised even the Asgardians with not only his victory over Thor, but also his ability to lift Thor's fabled hammer.

Here, then, is a brief collection of issues which paid tribute to that cover, along with a note or two about the cover artist for each.

Monday, January 15, 2018

If The Suit Fits...

When a new Chief Financial Officer for Fantastic Four, Inc. was needed, and Sue Richards made her decision as to who should be hired, let's just say that her husband, Reed, was a tad skeptical of her choice, given his reaction.

The person whom Sue selected to fill the position would be controversial--and a risk, considering the FF's financial affairs would be placed in his untried hands. Would it be Fabian Stankowicz? Happy Hogan? Cyrus Black? Or perhaps someone only vaguely familiar with the company, for whom the position would be untested waters?

You're getting warm. Real warm.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Game Penalty

Following a three-part story buildup where we saw the fate of three worlds hanging in the balance, we've now arrived at that story's conclusion, where the Fantastic Four have pieced together the truth and are ready to take action against the barbarian known as Arkon--a warlord hailing from a world in another dimension, who used an agent to acquire technology freely negotiated and sold by the Reed Richards of our Earth and his counterpart existing in a parallel continuum, as well as Phineas, an ally of the FF who dwells in the Fifth Dimension. Arkon's goal was to then use the technology and weaponry now at his disposal to manipulate events in all three worlds so that they would declare war on and attack each other, and thereby funnel the resulting release of atomic energy to his own dying world. But the FF, with the help of the other Reed, have gotten to the bottom of the scheme and revealed Arkon's hand--and at last, it's time to turn the tables on the schemer!

But whatever we were expecting from such an intricate and involved plot, does it all now come down to:

... a life-or-death battle with a glorified goalie!?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Threat To Three Worlds!

OR: "Invaders From The Fifth Dimension!"

With both the X-Men and the Avengers having their share of encounters with Arkon, the Magnificent (whose ego is apparently the equal of his battle prowess), it was a pleasure to rediscover a four-part 1975 story that gave the Fantastic Four their own shot at the other-dimensional barbarian. Arkon's motivation for his aggressive incursion into our own dimension remains pretty much the same as it's always been: securing new energy sources that will supply his planet with the power it needs to survive, by force if necessary. Unfortunately, Arkon often uses force as a first resort, not the last--and this time, his plan will prove so potentially devastating that the fate of three worlds hangs in the balance.

Scripter Roy Thomas will no doubt have a lot of plates to keep spinning in this story--and things are started off with a bang when its two principal characters (aside from the FF, whose own involvement will be extensive) clash in the streets of New York City. But even though the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters, arrives on the scene, is it really the Thing we see fleeing in panic from Arkon's attack--or is Thomas's intricate plot already underway?

Whatever's going on, it seems clear that this isn't the Ben Grimm we know. Nevertheless, the Thing is in dire straits, and in no condition to resist the approaching Arkon. His defeat above is a panel you'll want to scrutinize carefully, since a certain aspect of it figures prominently into the story that will unfold; but it's the next few moments that concern the blind Alicia, who must depend on her hearing alone to make sense of the final moments of her beloved's last stand.

Already, things don't look so good for the FF.  But then, "things" aren't what--who--they seem.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Can YOU Name The Real Lunatic Legion?

In 1975, as writer Steve Englehart's gig on Captain Marvel was just getting cranked up, a new villainous group was introduced whose chosen name falls in line with other malicious groups that didn't put enough thought into how they were describing themselves to those they opposed (I'm looking at you, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). For instance, a truly evil person wouldn't likely admit that of himself or their goals or methods--they'd instead accuse their accuser of being narrow-minded or woefully ignorant. But that person actually labeling himself as evil takes away any justification they might feel they have for their actions, however mad, giving them no high ground to hold over whoever they attack. Imagine, say, Dr. Doom making such an admission--it's unthinkable.

Which brings us to the Lunatic Legion, a group name that either says (a) "anyone in our group is a lunatic," or (b) "our name should tell you something about how far we're willing to go to carry out our plans." Somehow I don't think that option (b) ever entered the minds of our band of lunatics, which leaves us with (a). That being the case, the structure of their story leaves some wiggle room for the masterminds of the Legion to still maintain their dignity--because it doesn't seem to be crystal clear just which characters comprise the Lunatic Legion.

Which lets us wiggle our way into yet another

Marvel Trivia Question

Just what is

Monday, January 8, 2018

Once More, Valhalla!

In reviewing the story of Harokin the Barbarian, we were obliged to also begin taking a closer look at Valhalla, the glistening realm where those Asgardians who perished in battle were taken by Odin's "choosers of the slain," the Valkyries, to spend eternity in the joyous pursuit of armed conflict. It was a plane of existence where Hela, the Goddess of Death, was forbidden to enter; but over a period of time, Hela began annexing Valhalla to her own domain, the dread Dimension of Death. As a result, the Einherjar, those chosen legions who populate Valhalla, found themselves forming an allegiance to Hela--with Harokin, their leader, eventually acknowledging Hela as their queen.

We've seen how Harokin finally reached the point where he stepped up and redeemed himself in the eyes of himself and the Asgardians--but during the time Hela's domain and that of Valhalla were as one, Harokin's blind loyalty was to Hela and Hela alone, and that Harokin resembled more the ruthless warrior who led hordes of barbarians against Asgardian territories in search of plunder and power. Consequently, Harokin was solidly in Hela's camp by the time Odin was resolved to restore Valhalla to its former glory and deal with the one who usurped it.

Odin's wake-up call on the situation comes when Balder the Brave returns from an unfortunate encounter with the Queen of the Norns, Karnilla--one which resulted in the death of his beloved, Nanna, who now must spend eternity in a bleak and foreboding land that no longer embraces and fulfills the spirit of all Asgardians.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Domain Of The Dead!

As lauded as the barbarian known as Harokin was in his prior appearances in Mighty Thor, it comes as little surprise that he was chosen as leader of the Einherjar--those who have passed on to death and selected by the Valkyries to live on in eternal battle and glory in Valhalla (though in legend, they prepare for the day when they're called to participate in the carnage of Ragnarok). Readers of those stories that featured him would have to wait a decade to follow up on the character, though it would seem there's really little that would change for Harokin--the "afterlife" in Valhalla is the ultimate wish for every warrior who lived for battle, as Harokin did, and so that's where he'll always be and that's what he'll always be doing. However, thanks to Hela, the Goddess of Death, Valhalla is slowly being made over into her image--indeed, it's now being referred to as part of the Dimension of Death, where once it was intended to exist as something far different.

And it's to that domain that Thor must go, following an investigation into the disappearance of Odin and the discovery that after an exhaustive search, the All-Father cannot be found--that is, among the living. That leaves one very disturbing possibility that must be faced.

There is no turning Thor from his task--and so he makes the journey that no one living is meant to undertake. Naturally, once there, he hopes that the first sight he sees would be that of Odin--but it's the Einherjar who first greet him, though they mistake his sudden presence as proof that he joins their ranks as one of the fallen.

Unfortunately, for warriors who are enjoying an eternity of camaraderie and fulfillment...

...they're still a surly lot when you get right down to it.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Last Conquest of Harokin The Barbarian!

The character known as Harokin has received a fairly decent amount of exposure in the pages of Mighty Thor--for a dead man, that is. A barbarian who presumably operated outside of Odin's dictates and who led hordes of armed and armored men (the "Hordes of Harokin," in the tradition of Marvel's use of alliteration) and a warrior who had designs on conquering even Asgard, it makes sense that Harokin was presented as a formidable foe for Asgard's finest (in this case, Thor and the Warriors Three). Yet it's curious that, despite his ruthless attacks, his ambition, and his single-minded goal of conquest for the sake of conquest, Harokin exited as a noble and respected character whose passing was treated by Thor and the others as a rite of honor and who is given a hero's send-off. The "bigger picture," however, is that Harokin's story is folded into our first glimpse of the glorious afterlife of the Norse gods, in the land known as Valhalla--a haven for fallen Asgardians that holds the promise of an eternity of pageantry and battle, and which now opens its doors and welcomes a plunderer whose life of conquest was spent any way but honorably.

We first learn of Harokin indirectly, when Odin sends Thor and the others on a mission to confiscate an enchanted device from a temple in Muspelheim in order to keep it falling into the wrong hands. Yet the "Warlock's Eye" has already been seized--and its new owner doesn't hesitate to put it to use on the defenders of an Asgardian outpost near the city.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

When Wakes The Ultimate Mutant!

In the fall of 1974, The Defenders was just settling in to the change in course that came with the departure of all but one of its original members, leaving Dr. Strange as the only non-member of the non-team left to promote the "Defenders" concept--something the sorcerer all but took pride in, judging by his behavior in their company. Both departing writer Steve Englehart and his replacement, Len Wein, seemed to be of one mind in having the formerly reclusive Strange adopt a much different profile that saw him embrace the attitude of a "team player," a stance that the Defenders' newest addition, Nighthawk, no doubt was happy to support in his own new role as a super-hero. Yet the revised lineup is already on shaky ground, with the Valkyrie announcing her intent to depart in order to explore the life of the host body her persona inhabits--Barbara Norris, who was mystically joined to the Valkyrie by the Enchantress soon after Barbara was liberated from the realm of the Nameless One.

A bad time for this new "team" to begin to fragment, considering the seasoned group of villains that they'll soon be forced to test themselves against in battle.

Still, whoever said "change is good" probably knew what they were talking about, since the characters of this fresh hit title had to evolve and begin forming their own tight-knit formation that would hopefully catch on, even without two of its very recognizable big guns. And things look hopeful. Despite his grumbling to the contrary, there's still the participation of the Hulk, who can be summoned by Strange whenever the need arises (as if the brute's life isn't complicated enough); Nighthawk, in addition to having doubled strength at night, offsets the abilities of the others by adding agility to the mix; there's even talk being suggested in the letters page about Professor X replacing Strange as the group's leader whenever Strange is unavailable, as well as inviting input on what other characters should guest as a Defender. The future is wide open for the group--though with Strange virtually cheerleading their status as a team, there's a concern that the very things that set both himself and the Defenders apart from the pack are in danger of being lost. (For instance, the first issue of this two-part story has Strange giving Nighthawk a tour of his sanctum, which for all intents and purposes has become Defenders HQ--a development which is probably as absurd as it sounds, but which Strange hasn't given a second thought to.)

From that point, though, the story wastes no time in getting to the action--thanks to the unexpected entreaty of Professor X, who seeks the group's assistance in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns.

(It's really too bad Xavier isn't one for practical jokes--for instance, how awesome would it be to discover he only summoned the Defenders for assistance with his wheelchair in order to take the tour of the caverns?)

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