Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Beginning--And The End!

Well it took four issues to get to this point, but here's where things stand for the mighty Thor in October of 1974:

  • The Destroyer, the armored creation of Odin meant to be used against some as-yet unnamed future menace, is lying prone down at the waterfront after Thor and Hercules managed to rid it of the mortal spirit that had reanimated it and sent it into a rampage. The fact that it's been left totally unguarded, and that practically all one has to do to bring the Destroyer to life is to basically leave it somewhere for some mortal to trip over it, somehow seems perfectly acceptable to both Thor and Odin.
  • The mysterious Firelord, revealed to be the current herald of Galactus, has arrived on Earth seeking Thor--and man, this is one herald who does NOT like to be touched.
  • Thor and Hercules are present when Firelord summons his master with a signal sent into deep space, which reignites fears that Galactus is once again returning to Earth to consume it. Thanks to a reporter eavesdropping at the scene, the news becomes widespread, with everyone on Earth waiting for the arrival that will spell their doom.
  • Firelord is apparently one lousy herald, since the information he's delivered to Thor is parsed on a need-to-know basis. Consequently, when Galactus arrives days later, and everyone on the planet has crawled under their beds in terror, only then does Galactus reveal that he's only come to Earth to find Thor, not to attack. Firelord, wouldn't you know it, is nowhere to be found--but his expression of "Oh, did I neglect to mention that?" would probably speak volumes.
  • Galactus tells of an encounter with Ego, the Living Planet, whom Galactus believes has gone insane and now threatens the known universe. Thor and Hercules agree to accompany Galactus and combine forces against Ego--and, after weathering Ego's initial attack, manage to descend to Ego's surface.
  • Not unexpectedly, Ego responds by sending all manner of constructs and threats against Thor, Hercules, and Firelord, as they penetrate beneath to surface in an effort to locate Ego's mind. Finally, as Firelord and Hercules hold Ego's forces at bay, Thor hurls his enchanted hammer directly into the huge brain.
  • Meanwhile, Galactus' whereabouts are unknown--which might be a good thing, since if one knows where Galactus is, it's generally because he can be seen preparing to consume your world. Nevertheless, his being M.I.A. on this mission is conspicuous.
  • Odin, who has repeatedly proven not to be as all-wise as his rep would have us believe, has monitored these developments, if only to confirm that Thor knows what he's doing.

And so Part 5 of this story by Gerry Conway begins--but has the end already played out, with the destruction of Ego's mind? The issue's cover promises to deliver much more than we might expect, particularly when there is a great deal we must learn about Ego before discovering his fate.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When Galactus Returns!

The mid-1974 Mighty Thor story arc by Gerry Conway which introduces the third herald of Galactus, Firelord, to the Marvel universe* is a true classic and arguably one of Conway's best, though it sends a few mixed signals as to what the actual focus of the tale is meant to be.  Firelord's debut issue actually begins by picking up the action with the conclusion of a life-or-death battle between Thor and the Destroyer, which would technically make Firelord's issue Part 2 (as Conway makes clear at the issue's conclusion). But by the time Firelord makes the scene, the Destroyer has been dealt with and is at that point all but forgotten about, while the focus turns to Firelord's arrival on Earth and just why he's sought out Thor--though tempers would clash between Hercules and Firelord before the answer could be explored. Then of course Firelord summons Galactus, which then shifts the focus to the threat that Galactus presents to Earth--or does he? In short order, it's then revealed that Galactus is the one who has come to Earth seeking Thor--and after Galactus has explained the situation to both Thor and Hercules, the four of them set out to deal with none other than Ego, the Living Planet, who has apparently gone mad.

"Phew!" you're thinking, "that has to cover all the bases." Not quite. Would you believe you're also treated to an epic within an epic--the never-revealed origin of Ego?

But in Part 1--er, Part 2--the Destroyer has already been put on the back burner (so to speak) by the issue's cover, which of course spotlights the character who really heats things up for not only our heroes, but perhaps for the entire planet Earth.

*Second herald, if you're not counting the malevolent, sadistic robot, Gabriel--yet Firelord would beg to differ with you that Gabriel didn't deserve his rightful place as Herald #2.

Monday, January 29, 2018

First Flight Of The Vulture!

In mid-1963, fans of the new Amazing Spider-Man title were greeted with a stunning image of a villain who would become a mainstay in the web-spinner's career--the deadly Vulture, whose crime spree took New York City by storm and whose strange power of flight seemed beyond the capability of conventional police force methods to deal with.

Yet, given time, Spider-Man deduced the secret of the Vulture's technology and developed a mechanism to counter his power to stay aloft--and the adventure would prove to be not only a feather in his own cap, but also a windfall as far as opening the door to bringing in much-needed money for himself and his Aunt May, using the miniature camera belonging to his Uncle Ben to snap exclusive crime photos which could be sold to "The Daily Bugle" for cash.

Yet it would be awhile before we learned of the Vulture in more detail beyond his sudden existence as a super-criminal. How and why did such an aged man come to begin a career in crime at this stage in his life? What was his background in science and invention? Who was the man we would later come to know as Adrian Toomes?

Twenty years later, almost to the month, writer Roger Stern brings the Vulture out of semi-retirement when Toomes happens to note an upcoming electronics expo in the news, and one attendee's name in particular--Gregory Bestman, a name that Toomes remembers all too well from his past, and which fills him with enough rage to make a trip to New York and kidnap this man from the show in broad daylight. As Peter Parker, Spider-Man is present and attempts to prevent the Vulture from getting away with his terrified prey, who obviously recognizes Toomes and realizes he's in danger from his winged captor--and though the Vulture succeeds in evading the police giving chase, Spider-Man tracks the two to the abandoned silo which has served for so long as the Vulture's undiscovered hideout, where he becomes a witness to the details of a long-standing grudge that Bestman had made the mistake of believing had long since run its course.

Friday, January 26, 2018

If You Lead, We Will Follow

Dissension In The Ranks

When resentments and disagreements boil over,
even allies can turn against each other in fierce battle that can bring the house down.

(And often does!)


Around the time of Ultron's long-awaited return to The Avengers in 1977, the team had hit a slump in both morale and teamwork, thrown into disarray not only by Wonder Man's reappearance but also the fact that Ultron nearly overwhelmed them all when they clashed, saved only by a last-ditch gambit by Iron Man that opened an uncomfortable door as to just how far they were willing to cross the line to prevail. There was also the uncertainty that resulted from Iron Man's appointment as Chairman--a post requiring a full-time commitment from a man whose time was already in demand as Tony Stark by the pressing needs of his company. In addition, the Vision had been critically injured by Ultron and was currently undergoing treatment in a restorative tank--while Wonder Man was known to freeze up in battle, with every mission as an Avenger representing for him the possibility of a return to death that he had so recently escaped from.

The Avengers lineup remained well-balanced, with several of their members among their most experienced--but despite the presence of Captain America in the field, they seemed uncoordinated and often acted rashly, and tempers were becoming frayed. They also fared poorly against remnants of the Lethal Legion (Whirlwind, Power Man, and the Living Laser--probably more accurately described as one part Masters of Evil/two parts Lethal Legion), surviving the encounter only because Count Nefaria used his three unsuspecting pawns to make himself a super-powerhouse, siphoning their powers for himself with a procedure that increased his might a hundredfold but, in turn, leaving his lackeys powerless.

Nefaria's attack easily deals with whatever resistance the Avengers are able to offer, burying them beneath a toppled building and leaving them for dead. Iron Man, whose absence during the attack couldn't help but stand out like a sore thumb to the other Avengers, arrives and digs through to them, fortunately finding no fatalities--but his next decision doesn't buy his way out of the dog house, not by a long shot.

Jeez! Look who's gunning for Chairwoman!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Leader, 2.0!

If there were ever occasion to commission a poll on which Marvel character could be named as the incredible Hulk's arch-enemy, there's little doubt that the most tallies* would register in favor of not the Abomination, or the Absorbing Man, or even "Thunderbolt" Ross, but an ordinary laborer who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time--Samuel Sterns, the Leader, who, like the Hulk, gained his power through exposure to gamma rays but instead found his intelligence and mental abilities boosted to an incredible degree, a result which was all too obvious.

*Though the Hulk's vote would probably have been cast for Bruce Banner without much deliberation.

Like Dr. Doom, Egghead, or M.O.D.O.K., the Leader's appearance didn't really require any variation through the years, his vertically-oversized cranium and hue making him stand out in any rogues' gallery lineup (and certainly on any issue cover). Even in the smaller panels of the mid-1960s, the early rendering of the Leader's appearance by artist Steve Ditko made for a striking impression.

Still, if an artist were inclined to change the Leader's appearance, he or she would probably tackle the character's most recognizable feature--but how to tamper with and improve on such a classic look?

For the answer, we'll need to "head" into another

Marvel Trivia Question

In what way did the Leader's appearance change--and why?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

...As Ixchel Commands!

When we left the tense situation in the Central American province of Terra Verde, the Human Torch was soaring past what appeared to be air-to-ground military exercises engaged by a squadron of fighter jets, as he prepared to continue on in his search for Crystal, his missing girlfriend presumed to be somewhere in the region. Yet we know from reading the issue in question that there is much more to the scene than meets the Torch's eye--mainly, that the villain known as Diablo has taken control of Crystal and convinced the natives that she is their legendary goddess, Ixchel, with Diablo sending her to lead a rebellion to the capital city to overthrow the country's tyrant, General Robles. But Robles has retaliated with a deadly air strike meant to wipe out the rebellion at a stroke--and with Crystal's fate uncertain, the Torch may never know how close he was to reuniting with his lost love.

But though he doesn't yet know of Crystal's involvement in the carnage below, the Torch at last realizes that what he's witnessed isn't target practice at all, but murder. And the priorities of this member of the Fantastic Four change in an instant.

Yet before the Torch can continue with his attack, he receives some unexpected assistance from the ground--unexpected, but not unrecognizable.

Unknown to Johnny, however, this woman believes herself to be the goddess Ixchel, with no recollection whatsoever of Johnny Storm. And despite Johnny's efforts apparently on her behalf, will she be friend--or foe?

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Flame And The Quest!

Following Marvel's brief decision in late 1971 to execute a 10¢ price increase for its books and expand selected titles to over thirty pages of content, only to dial that back the following month and reduce the page count to 21 pages while settling on a 20¢ cover price, there still remained the task of adapting the work already done for the following month's books to once again conform to a regular-sized issue. The answer took the form of splitting those stories that needed such treatment into separate issues--and for the most part, the transition was virtually seamless, as was the case with what became a two-part Fantastic Four story that saw not only the reappearance of a former member of the team, but also the return of one of its most classic villains.

Crystal, the girlfriend of Johnny Storm, hadn't been seen or heard from since she was forced to abandon the team due to her inability to develop a resistance to the pollution levels outside of the Inhumans' refuge in the Himalayas. In the span of the ten issues since that decision, however, it's clear that Johnny has had his fill of a long-distance relationship.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Now That's Cosmic Awareness

If you're Rick Jones, and your manager has you booked at bars and other hangouts that feature live entertainment, you've probably seen your share of drug use, both behind the curtain and among your patrons. So there is absolutely no way you're going to have an encounter like this:

...and not realize that your performance partner, Rachel Dandridge, has just slipped you a narcotic of some sort--in this case, probably a little LSD. And you'd also know perfectly well that the reference to "Vitamin C" was a wink-wink/elbow nudge moment meant to acknowledge that you're both part of the same club, so to speak.

But Rick isn't a member of that club, at least as far as we know--yet he's hardly naive, either.  So what explains his curious reaction to what he's been slipped? Is he really wondering what reason "Dandy" would have for palming him a Vitamin C capsule? He's not giving any thought to what else it could be? It's 1975, when people were sharing and experimenting with mind-altering substances--come on, Mr. With-It.

Cut to: the Negative Zone, where Rick is cooling his heels while Captain Marvel soars toward Earth's moon and a confrontation with the Lunatic Legion. Rick has ten hours to kill in the Zone, with the exception of the few seconds he'll have in normal space each time he and Mar-vell must switch atoms with each other due to the three-hour limit that Mar-vell can exist in our universe. What can he do to pass the time? Well, surely what you or I would do in his place--pop that Vitamin C capsule.

No, I have no idea why Rick would think that swallowing a vitamin capsule would help in the slightest with passing the time or relieving boredom. Does time fly for you when you gulp down a pill and it starts to dissolve in your system? Do we really even still think about the darned thing once it's been swallowed?

Unfortunately, Mar-vell, like Rick, will have a few things to think about--because being linked with Rick means being linked with the effects of his vitamin kick.

And the timing is lousy--because even before Mar-vell reaches the Legion, he must face a strangely hostile Watcher, who, in Mar-vell's current state, easily captures him.

In time, Mar-vell recovers sufficiently to strike back at the Legion--and quite well, too, since the story by Steve Englehart almost goes out of its way to make clear how the shared experience of Mar-vell and Rick with "whatever it was that pummeled [their] mind[s]" has made them stronger, faster, even more aware, and more closely linked than ever before. Why, what a subtle approach.

Got it, Marv--"vitamin" use is good.  (At least I think that's the message that's being relayed--it's so very hard to read between the lines here.)

Perhaps to make Rick and the CCA happy, we could just say it was a multi-vitamin at work.  But seriously, Rick, get out a little more and mix with your generation.

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 had 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.