Friday, December 21, 2018

Have Yourself A Hydra Little Christmas

Today the PPC takes the rest of the year off to enjoy the holidays--
we'll see you back here in 2019!

Wishing You the Joys of the Holiday Season

The Peerless Power of Comics!

(And try to stay clear of SHIELD agents who are packing!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

...And He Shall Crush The Stranger!

Having recently seen the fate of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--alien conquerors whose return visit to our planet was challenged and repelled by the Fantastic Four--it might be interesting to pay a visit to the laboratory world of the enigmatic Stranger and learn what others have been trapped and imprisoned there, without hope of reprieve or escape. We know that at one time, both Magneto and the Toad shared that unfortunate fate, and were only able to return due to an experiment conducted by Dane Whitman, the future Black Knight, which inadvertently retrieved the two; but thanks to writer and stalwart Marvel researcher Mark Gruenwald, we'll discover that there have been many other Marvel characters who have ended up in captivity on the Stranger's world, which has been a handy if unofficial holding area for characters whose prior stories have conveniently left the door open for their reappearance but haven't yet been followed up on by other writers.

But most interesting of all is the catalyst for bringing them all out of mothballs in one story, himself a character who, like the others, found himself in creative limbo--the Over-Mind, ready to resume his path to conquest and eager to destroy the one he blames for ending his mission of crushing the universe. The Over-Mind was rather handily dealt with by the Stranger when the former made his move to fulfill his original mission; but escaping his fate, his form and power were eventually co-opted by a collective of six psychics who had been former captives of the Secret Empire, and the character segued to the pages of The Defenders. Yet shortly before the Defenders were reorganized and rechristened, the Over-Mind simply disappeared from the book without explanation, summarily dropped from the roster and never referred to in the mag again.  (And not long after an issue is dedicated to the psychics coming to terms with their new existence as the Over-Mind and being formally accepted for "membership" by the others in the group.  Seems like a lot of trouble to go through, only to then jettison the character.)

When we encounter the Over-Mind in Gruenwald's tale, he's regained his faculties and apparently looking to settle the score with the Stranger with a vengeance. And having enthralled various members of the Squadron Supreme to do his bidding, he arrives at the Stranger's lab world to exact that vengeance in full.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The End Is Nigh, Where Ride... The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse!

When we're talking about the end of all there is, you'd be hard-pressed to find more fearsome characters to adapt for a comics story than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the harbingers of the Last Judgment who originate from the Book of Revelation. Let's face it: If you subscribe to the beliefs of the Bible and you spot four horsemen descending from the clouds, it's fair to assume that your number is up--that everyone's number is up, given that the task of the Horsemen is to "set a divine apocalypse" upon the world. That sort of wording isn't likely to put a happy face on the event, since no matter how you slice it an apocalypse is still an apocalypse; in addition, though it's comforting to know that Heaven will have horses, it's anyone's guess why a domain with winged angels would need to send harbingers galloping down on horseback. Nevertheless, you can't help but appreciate the notion that God has been interpreted to have a sense of the theatric.

"Four Horsemen of the Apocalpse"
Painted by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887

From left to right: Death, Famine, War, and Conquest

In terms of these characters being represented in comics, you may remember the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse--that is, the ancient mutant who adapted other mutants to fulfill his plans for global conquest, and whose credo has been "growth, judgment, and destruction" throughout his centuries-long life span. Apocalypse depended on science and technology to create his horsemen...

...but for his final convert, Death, he took advantage of the injuries of Warren Worthington, the Angel, replacing his amputated wings with razor-sharp equivalents and sending him out with the other horsemen to do his bidding.

That story played out in the fall of 1987. But years earlier, in 1974, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, along with artist Rich Buckler, created Marvel's earliest version of the Four Horsemen--aliens who would return to Earth to conquer it anew, and, this time, maintain their grip on it forever!

And since we're talking about four horsemen, it stands to reason that it would be the Fantastic Four who would fight to deny them their prize.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Get With The Times, Dr. Strange

From mid-1963 until the end of '64, Dr. Strange's status as a sorcerer was already beyond that of an adept, though he still worked closely with the Ancient One and would occasionally call on his aid and counsel--while his reputation in dealing with the supernatural was growing and becoming more known in professional circles. To many, he was mostly regarded at the time as a "man of mystery" and was no doubt fodder for the rumor mill of New York City; formally, however, Strange was referred to in narrative as "the Master of Black Magic," and thus found himself appropriately garbed in dark colors as well as a sweeping cloak which often made his movements appear as if he were gliding on solid ground. He made for quite the sight for New Yorkers on the street, who knew of him but didn't quite know what to make of him other than what few impressions had been passed along the grapevine--a curiosity, to be sure, but quite aloof and not really one for small talk.

Sometimes, of course, it was difficult to see any colors of his clothing even in broad daylight, as these familiar-looking high schoolers realized when they spotted him "out and about." It was an encounter they likely wouldn't forget anytime soon.

I had begun reading stories featuring Dr. Strange only after he began wearing his newer threads that included his cloak of levitation and a different amulet, but I have to admit a fondness for his original attire which gave him that air of mystery as well as an austere quality and an almost stern countenance that set him apart from the budding super-hero scene and put him in a category of his own. But just as the character was about to round the corner to 1965, a situation arose which would result in an upgrade of his appearance and, to a certain extent, his abilities--a turning point for the character, if not so much for the man.

Which brings a new look to our next

Marvel Trivia Question

Under what circumstances did Dr. Strange change his costume--and why?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wrapped In An Enigma... Captain Universe!

One of the few Marvel characters who faced very little accountability as far as his past or his future was concerned has been Captain Universe, a force for good who isn't so much a character as he is the "Unipower"--a combination of energy and persona which is taken on by a host body in order to deal with a crisis. As such, Captain Universe can become manifest at any time, anywhere--and in anyone who is apparently in need of him. He's also very elusive as far as his readership is concerned, given how difficult it's proven to be to establish a history for him, or a pattern of behavior (beyond his obvious heroism), or even his very nature. The Unipower, for instance, implies a single, specific energy source, but has been demonstrated to have a variety of applications (ditto Captain Marvel's "uni-beam")--while its own source, the "Enigma Force," is exactly as billed: undefined and a mystery, its origin apparently relating to a time traveler who bonded with a sword of cosmic power.

That leaves the person himself--"Captain Universe," whom we know nothing of beyond the fact that he's (it's?) offering assistance to someone who is in distress, using his own standards (i.e., the writer's) to determine which person or persons should take on the Unipower. And so basically we have a set of from-the-hip powers, stemming from a force which conveniently remains an enigma, embodied in a man? being? spirit? who has not only a titular military rank (like our friend Captain Ultra) but who also claims a rather grandiose stage for himself (i.e., the universe). How did this entity get to be "Captain Universe," anyway? By the time we meet the character in a 1979 Micronauts story--a creation of Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden--he's presented to us in full-blown, here-I-come-to-save-the-day mode, having taken the form of an ordinary character who wants to save the Earth from a powerful villain from the microverse (Baron Karza).

We're shown right off the bat that a person being suffused with the essence of Captain Universe retains their own personality and thoughts--they're simply overlaid with C.U.'s sense of heroism and purpose, while also understanding something of his mission (for want of a better word) as well as the basics on how to use the powers they now possess. The interesting part of that bargain is that C.U. is placing a great deal of trust in the judgment and capability of the person being granted the power, since it stands to reason that not every "new hero" may have the confidence or instincts they need to overcome the peril they face (consider the example of Jane Foster when she became a goddess)--but that's another way for Mantlo and other writers to keep the concept fresh, since every person who has the Unipower thrust upon them will react and act in different ways each time.

In the Micronauts presentation story, we're given a bare-bones introduction of the Enigma Force (and the beings thereof), as well as the recipient of the Unipower--Ray Coffin, who attacks Karza on sight but who embraces the Captain Universe persona as his own.

With Karza dealt with for the time being, and Coffin's part in the drama done, it only remains for the Enigma Force to reclaim Captain Universe. And thus is born a formula that can handily be used in practically any story that would benefit from a surprise appearance by Captain Universe, no questions asked.

There have been quite a number of average characters who have been granted the Unipower and thereby became much more than they were, if only for the short term--which does have the potential to be intriguing and hopefully exciting, depending on the circumstances that the writer comes up with. A catchy tag that was attached to the character of Captain Universe fit his modus operandi like a glove: "The Hero Who Could Be You!" -- which took a bit of dramatic license, considering that what we're really talking about is The Hero Who Could Be Any Character In A Comics Story. Yet it was a clever way to engage the reader, particularly one who might be a firefighter, or a student, or a nurse, or simply someone who was down on his luck--anyone who could identify with the principal character.

Following his Micronauts appearances, Captain Universe struck out on his own briefly in 1980-81 with a three-issue run in Marvel Spotlight, where Mantlo teams with artist Steve Ditko to continue the character's story, this time with Coffin's son (Steve), two sisters, and a cat burglar taking on the Unipower. Yet the Unipower at times was embodied by characters who already had powerful abilities of their own. A brief 2006 series gave us stories featuring Daredevil, the Invisible Woman, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and X-23 as Captain Universe, though they lacked a good deal of Mantlo's original concept; after all, these people were already heroes, and any extra power they exhibited seemed almost redundant. But years earlier, there were two characters whose stories dealing with Captain Universe were notable and handled quite well: Bill Mantlo's Incredible Hulk annual from 1981 and, later, the 1989-90 crossover issues featuring the amazing Spider-Man, with twists and turns which perhaps reignited the character of Captain Universe for many readers.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Hammer of Wonder Man!

When Zemo used his technology to transform inventor Simon Williams into the powerhouse he named Wonder Man, Williams donned his new costume* and provided an impressive demonstration of his abilities, both on his own and in combat against Zemo's ally, the Executioner:

*In the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" category, believe it or not Zemo's taste in clothing is leaps and bounds above that of the West Coast Avengers.

Though it's one of Wonder Man's abilities in particular which gives us pause here:

Yeahhh. About that. Unless Zemo has been hiding his godhood under a bushel, he doesn't have the means or the power to duplicate the sheer might of Thor's hammer in a human body (not even an ionic human body); so while Wonder Man's strength is off the charts and reputedly nearly the equal of Thor's, his fists likely wouldn't be able to deliver the incredible destructive power of Thor's hammer. Which means we won't be seeing those fists pull off feats the likes of which the God of Thunder has demonstrated in his own mag.

Or look at it this way: If Thor's personal might could equal the striking power of his hammer, he wouldn't have much use for a hammer, would he? After all, we've seen him invoke the power of the storm without the need of Mjolnir, either with his hands or by invoking spells. And while in Asgard, he typically gets around on horseback, rather than using his hammer for flight.

Nevertheless, this feature of Wonder Man's strength would persist when the character returned to The Avengers after thirteen years of death evolving into a new form of life. And wow, was he insistent on advertising it.

In fact, Williams seems to have some weird fixation on Thor's hammer--that, or he just doesn't have that much field experience yet.

There was also mention in the original tale about Wonder Man's extraordinary speed--for instance, striking Giant-Man with "almost incalculable speed"... dealing with the Enchantress by "moving with dazzling speed for one so strong..." Which means that we got an earful of that as well, from friends and enemies.

Obviously, Quicksilver was second-rate next to Wonder Man in Jan's eyes.

Of course, if Wonder Man is packing a Mjolnir punch, a few precautions would be in order, wouldn't you think?

You can almost hear Captain America now, can't you: "Wonder Man! Stop hammering at that force field, you fool--you'll kill us all!"

Fortunately, it only took a humiliating demonstration in the Avengers' gym to give Wonder Man a little perspective on Thor being in a class of his own...

...though for what it's worth, I'll bet Thor isn't nearly as fast.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Rogues All!

Judging by their continuing popularity in forums and elsewhere, it's regrettable that Marvel's rogues' galleries--which presented a rundown of a character's repertoire of villains in full-page profile format--never really caught on beyond the 1963-64 annuals of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, though they didn't stick around long regardless. As mostly a supplementary group of pages to those titles, it's possible that Stan Lee took another look at them and decided to instead offer more bang for the buck in annuals by padding the books with fresh and unexpected content that the reader didn't see coming. (Though padding them with reprints, as was often the case, was probably met with just the disappointment that Lee might have been trying to head off.)

Still, it would have been enjoyable to see other characters' annuals produce their own rogues' galleries, if only for the short term. One can only imagine how Jack Kirby's Thor galleries might have turned out, or John Buscema's take on Avengers villains--ditto for Herb Trimpe's Hulk roster, given how adept Trimpe was at stunning full-page renderings. Presumably, Iron Man's classic collection would have been taken on by Don Heck, whose portrait work I'd be curious (though admittedly not terribly excited) to take a look at; but other than George Tuska, I'm not sure who Marvel would tap for the job aside from Gene Colan. (Imagine the elation at turning the pages only to find, say, Neal Adams having rendered villain profiles of the Black Widow, the Mandarin, the Titanium Man, et al. Talk about the unexpected!) Daredevil, naturally, would be Colan all the way.

As for the galleries themselves, their main appeal eventually evolved into seeing them in their entirety--so, again, it's regrettable that we don't have more groupings to look at from either the Silver or Bronze Age. But having already put together Spider-Man's cast of nefarious nemeses, it's only right to give the FF their due, since their gallery paved the way for the concept, however briefly it lasted--yet time enough to be immortalized.

The FF's gallery in the Sept. 1963 annual preceded that of Spider-Man's by a year--though, like its counterpart in Amazing Spider-Man, it would follow up with a few more portraits in its second annual. But though the FF galleries would contribute additional profiles in its '79 annual, the FF's count of rogues would fall short of Spider-Man's gallery count by 8 portraits--a no doubt dubious honor for Spider-Man, seeing as he apparently had more criminals gunning for him than the Fantastic Four.

By the time of Daredevil's first annual in 1967, the rogues' gallery concept had been shelved indefinitely, so that only a few portraits graced DD's collection. Further weaning us from the concept was the retooling of it to a far less distinguished listing: "memory pages." Egad.

And I agree: they could have at least included Dr. Doom here.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Try Your Hand!

If you had aspirations toward working at Marvel Comics as a writer or artist, you probably took more than a second glance at The Official Marvel Comics Try-out Book published in 1983, which offered you a chance to submit your work samples directly to the source--and, best of all, since by all appearances Marvel was "hiring," you didn't have any concerns of how to get your foot in the door or having your work rejected outright. You were also on a level playing field with other applicants, since each person was applying their talent to the same pages of the sample story in the book which was in various stages of completion. Depending on what area you wanted to concentrate on, you could add your own touches and flair and submit work that would be distinct from anyone else who was hoping to be the next Chris Claremont or John Romita.

Taking a leaf from How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, a much larger and more detailed instructional aid published in 1978, the Try-Out book clocks in at only 32 pages, but naturally has a format geared for work submission, its weighted pages oversized at 11" x 17" and designed for removal from the book's spine--though many would also have picked up the book just to hone their developing skills. Given its title, it has a only a minimum of introductory and explanatory segments and doesn't go into nearly the detail of its 1978 predecessor; its strength, rather, lies in the fact that it's a hands-on book in the truest sense, and no doubt appealed to those who wished to have a "starting point" in front of them.

Starting with the actual (but unfinished) comic story which gives you a few completed pages by Jim Shooter, John Romita Jr., Al Milgrom, Christine Scheele and Jim Novak, you'll then find sections that break down the work into try-out areas where you can add inking and/or coloring to pencilled and/or inked pages, add lettering to pages which have been scripted, pencil pages that have been plotted, write your own plot, or script pages that have been plotted and pencilled. No doubt there were those who rolled up their sleeves and tried their hand in more than one area, taking advantage of the enthusiasm which a publication that had "Official Marvel Try-Out Book" as its title was bound to generate.

The house ad for the book doesn't appear until April of the following year:

Nearly a year later, perhaps to get a little more mileage from the book's jaw-dropping $12.95 price tag, Shooter decided to capitalize on the book's title and grandfather the concept into a formal contest which in essence "put the word out" that Marvel was actively looking for new talent--and to sweeten the pitch, there was now a bona fide work assignment waiting for the winners, as a new full-page ad appearing in the company's January 1985 books details:

The revised ad was supplemented by a mention in the Bullpen Bulletins section (or what was left of it by 1985). Given its wording, there was apparently a production slip-up that delayed the Bulletins blurb until the following month instead of coinciding with the January ad; yet an explanation has now been added which clarifies that the contest was a way of satisfying rabid fans who were clamoring for the full comics story that remained incomplete in the Try-Out book. To cover his bases, Shooter adds that purchasing the book wasn't required to enter the contest.

Reportedly, over 19,000 submissions were received by Marvel--which, not even tabulating purchases of the book which were made before the contest was conceived and added to the mix, amounts to over a quarter of a million bucks in sales.

It wasn't until February of '86 before the winners were announced, one of whom you'll likely recognize immediately:

Only the Bulletins winners' annoucement includes the wording regarding the winners' "first regular professional assignment," while the ad is careful not to imply that additional work will be forthcoming.

To follow up on the annoucement, the ASM story which would have finished the "Personals" story begun in the Try-Out book never materialized, though Bagley of course went on to pencil a full run of Ultimate Spider-Man and other assignments. Hazlewood, the inking contestant, would mainly make his stamp at DC Comics--while Riggs, formerly a graphic artist, would shift to inking work in Marvel's UK line as well as finding later work at DC. Neither Pasda nor Duffie have been credited in published work (to my knowledge).

A less hyped try-out book was the 1996 X-Men-themed effort (with an intro by Bagley) that makes a point of mentioning the use of computer technology in comic book production, while being less accommodating as far as available pages to work off of directly.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the mid-'80s, of course, so Shooter's message in the final announcement welcoming further submissions post-contest has accumulated a lot of dust. And boy, has Marvel changed its tune and retracted the welcome mat:

"Marvel does not accept or consider any ideas, creative suggestions, artwork, designs, game proposals, scripts, manuscripts, or similar material unless we have specifically requested it from you. Marvel is continuously developing and creating its own ideas and materials, and we don’t have the resources to review or respond to unsolicited material. Unfortunately, any unsolicited material you send will not be read or shared. It will be destroyed, and it will not be returned.

"While we can’t accept your unsolicited submissions, please know that Marvel is always looking for new comic book artists and writers. We constantly read and review indie, self-published, creator-owned, and web-comics, review popular online art communities, ask other artists for opinions and recommendations, and host portfolio reviews at conventions from time to time. If you are an aspiring comic book artist or writer, we suggest you publish or publicly post your material, continue to create, and if you have the right stuff...we’ll find you."

Or, as Mark Alford bottom-lines it in his commentary on the subject: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Mark Bagley talks about his try-out experience and subsequent career.