Friday, March 23, 2018

It's Not Easy Being Captain America

There's little argument that Captain America holds the respect and admiration of not only his country's citizens, servicemen/women, and law enforcement officers, but also those in the super-powered community who have been privileged to work with him and follow him into battle. That said, on rare occasion, some would also find themselves admitting that:

Captain America can sometimes be a real pain in the neck! (gulp!)

A product of the 1940s, Cap is of course old school when it comes to weighing the options and making the right call in battle scenarios. And as an Avenger, he also brings forth his experience on the battlefield in both directing strategy and leading the troops. And so during the "Secret Wars," when a leader needed to be chosen for the group of heroes transported from Earth to battle a separate group of villains, it was no surprise to see a consensus develop in favor of Cap taking charge.

Yet we'd see that Cap's instincts in that respect kick in even before such a vote is taken, as the heroes are deposited on the planet that would be called "Battleworld" and find themselves having to snap to almost immediately in response to Cap's initial assessment of their situation.

It was the Wasp who at this point in time held the position of Avengers Chairwoman--so how odd to see Cap, of all people, ignore the chain of command and begin barking out orders to his teammates. During the vote meeting, the Wasp would defer to Cap and support his nomination, so for what it's worth it seems reasonably clear that there was no offense taken at Cap's apparent slight.

But while the Hulk also thinks highly of Cap, he begins to chafe at Cap's presumption when Dr. Doom and his villainous followers catch the heroes by surprise in a dawn raid on their base.

Nor does his disposition improve while Cap assumes a waiting posture while the threat of Galactus looms and the Wasp is missing in action.

That inaction proves fatal for the Wasp, when the Wrecking Crew deliver her corpse to the heroes' camp and make good their escape, while Cap finds himself in the position of preventing the Avengers from... avenging.

It's apparent that, in the Hulk's case, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree when the She-Hulk decides to ignore Cap's orders and invade the villains' stronghold on her own in order to deliver payback to the Wrecking Crew. But in taking her on, the Crew is joined by several others, and they assault the She-Hulk as a group, beating her to near-death.

Meanwhile, Cap again holds his group in check, to the astonishment of those who feel compelled to help their friend.

Gosh, Cap--you take "calm, cool and collected" to a whole new disturbing level. And if it had been Bucky who was fighting for his life? What would your decision have been then, sport?

Cap finally gives the go-ahead when the X-Men offer to stand vigil against Galactus, leaving the other heroes free to race to She-Hulk's aid. Unfortunately, they arrive too late--and only then does Cap begin to question his actions, though more in regard to the Wasp's fate than that of the She-Hulk.

Soon enough, the heroes are recalled by Charles Xavier, who alerts them to Galactus making his move to consume the planet. Their ship crash lands on arrival, but is saved at the last moment by Colossus, who was recovering from deadly wounds sustained from battling the Wrecking Crew. (They certainly live up to their name here.) But even as others race to Colossus' aid, Cap makes it clear that injuries don't cut much slack with him when there's a crisis looming.

While it's true that, when lives are on the line, many of us tend to feel more assured knowing that Captain America is on the job, the scale that he uses to weigh his priorities could use some calibration, an assessment that might also apply to his judgment calls. In addition, while he consistently gets high marks from law enforcement and military personnel, there have been times when his patience has worn thin at attempts to hold him accountable. All of that said, hand me that shield because I'd probably be the first to offer to polish it. The man has a tough job, giving no less than his best.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mission: Stop The Hulk!

During March of 1963, the first Incredible Hulk series was ending its run of just six issues--though judging by the Fantastic Four issue of the same month, where the character was making a guest appearance, you'd find it hard to believe that the Hulk's days on the comics rack were numbered.

As it turned out, not even this "hail Mary" pass for the Hulk could save his title from folding--but his inclusion here helps to make this issue of Fantastic Four a true classic. Not to mention helping it fetch a pretty penny on ebay.

So why is the FF going after the Hulk? And why is the Hulk out to destroy them? For now, we'll just have to be tempted by one of the story's chapter titles which heralds the drama to come, as we begin to flip through pages that were created 55 years ago to the month.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The End Of... SHIELD!?

If you were around in 1966, you had a lot more to be worried about than the Vietnam War, Batman's latest death trap, New York's striking public transportation workers, the flooding of Florence, China's "cultural revolution," Reagan entering politics, or the new mini-skirt causing males to walk into doors.  We unsuspecting civilians also had to contend with the rise of Hydra, the sinister organization bent on world domination or, failing that, its destruction.

But if we're to believe this startling cover of Strange Tales, our problems with Hydra may finally be over! Seriously?

Yet if Hydra bites it, what happens then to S.H.I.E.L.D.? And Nick Fury?

Monday, March 19, 2018

From The Grave Comes... Death!

With the capture of both Malice and Venomm, the Black Panther perhaps has reason to believe he's making headway in defeating the plans of Erik Killmonger, the man who has come to Wakanda to overthrow T'Challa and spearheads the series of stories from 1973-75 known as "Panther's Rage." But as we come to Part 4 of this story, the momentum that's been slowly building vis-à-vis the Panther and his primary antagonist lapses, and "Panther's Rage" begins to feel like one of those daytime dramas which must juggle a number of actors throughout the week--eventually, the characters you really want to see become occupied with learning their lines and rehearsing for their next appearances, leaving the bit players filling air time in scenes which have little to do with the main plot.  Killmonger himself, unfortunately, continues to be "offstage," while the story's focus falls on his lieutenants.  For such a merciless, aggressive man with his eye squarely on T'Challa's throne, you'd think that Killmonger would insist on more stage time.

With the entrance of Baron Macabre, another of Killmonger's lieutenants, even the narrative of writer Don McGregor can't help but offer the impression that we seem to be becoming mired in a story that's trotting out one bizarre threat after another to face the Panther--or as the Panther himself puts it, "more of the fright-show theatrics of Killmonger's league," which admittedly about sums it up. As for our "bit players" who all but try to wrest the spotlight from Macabre, they become part of a murder mystery which will culminate toward the end of the story following the Panther's inconclusive battle with the Baron--though if you pay careful attention, you'll notice vital clues to identifying the true suspect, thanks to guest artist Gil Kane who expertly picks up on McGregor's tipoffs.

McGregor begins with one of those players, Monica Lynne, T'Challa's lover and guest, who might as well have "out-worlder" stenciled on her forehead for all of those within the palace and without who continue to give her the cold shoulder and more than a few resentful stares. We learn later that T'Challa has completed (off-panel) the ritual which would renew his Panther abilities, its delay caused by Monica putting a halt to what she misjudged as abuse on the part of T'Challa's warriors--an affront which did her no favors in the eyes of those who viewed the ritual as sacred. This day, she again experiences distrust while accompanying the Panther during his appearance at a local village--and back in the palace, she once again endures the frigid words of a court handmaiden, Tanzika, who has already shared tense words with Monica and who continues to make her feelings about this woman known, in one way or another.

The after-dinner conversation isn't likely to improve, either, since T'Challa receives some disturbing reports from Zatama: First, evidence that Killmonger's guns are of the same stock as those used by T'Challa's guards stationed in his underground "jungle"... and second, word of a visitor (the same villager who treated Monica with such disdain) who pleads with the Panther to locate her missing husband, M'Jumbak, assumed to be headed toward a burial site said to be haunted by Baron Macabre.

Regrettably, upon reaching the site, the Panther finds M'Jumbak dead, and his presumed killer closing in on him.

Macabre's "ground support" (heh) are our old friends, the Death Regiments, whose collective bark in "Panther's Rage" has so far proven worse than their bite, given how superfluous they turned out to be in Venomm's mining operation; though in fact, they seem to have no voice at all, which no doubt adds to their menacing aspect. Here, once more, they take a noncommittal stance, preferring to hang back while Macabre takes the offensive against the Panther--nor does it look like they're needed, beyond assuming the task of transporting the Panther to Macabre's master, King Cadaver.

While back at the palace, our prospective murderer is about to make their play--and though their identity remains shrouded in mystery, we at least know who is fated to die, thanks to McGregor spilling the beans through narrative.

Since being introduced, Zatama has resonated W'Kabi's own anger and accusations, echoing their substance through his own emotions on the subject of T'Challa even though he and W'Kabi are at odds with each other--so his death really doesn't deprive us of a unique character who adds to the interplay in any meaningful way, since it's slack which W'Kabi will pick up easily enough. But McGregor makes quite an effort to keep this mystery's wheels spinning, perhaps to the detriment of where our focus should be in this story.

Meanwhile, Macabre (remember Baron Macabre?) has discovered that, to an extent, the Panther has feigned weakness in order to surprise his foe when the time is right.  Yet to the Baron, the ploy seems to be an inconvenience, nothing more.

Macabre thus becomes the first of Killmonger's operatives who doesn't fall captive to the Panther--though from a reader's perspective, it's difficult to swallow why the Panther, who has faced heavy odds from armed men before, is suddenly bolting.  (And when did the Death Regiments become armed?) The Panther doesn't seem too worried about either Macabre or the Regiments, and he appears physically capable of staying in this fight--and all the while, McGregor, in his written portrayal of him, is describing the prowess of the Panther as if the men he's fighting should be standing agape at the level of fighter they face. It's a battle that ends inconclusively for no good reason, and arguably too quickly.

But while the Baron would consider himself to be shocking development enough, look what elbows him aside to assume this story's nail-biting climax meant to hook the reader for the next issue:

It doesn't take a speck of insight to realize that Monica has been framed, at least if you're not T'Challa's outraged security chief who has resented Monica's presence from day one. The mystery will continue to unfold in the next issue--where, who knows, the story's next "fright-show theatric" might make more of an impression than his servant had a chance to here.



Whatever is in that heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther his power, I wouldn't mind a little of it in a daily protein shake--because a man who can bring down a charging rhinoceros is pretty much all the advertisement such a supplement needs.

(We may also have to re-evaluate the Panther's standing as a "mediumweight" in the Gruenwald/Layton strength-ranking chart--or can Daredevil pull this off, too?)

Jungle Action #9

Script: Don McGregor
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: Klaus Janson
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

...All She Desires!

There were so many characters who were participants in the first Secret Wars series of the early 1980s--and yet, in the midst of the mob, there was the Enchantress, who seemed at loose ends in this environment of senseless conflict. Only at its end would the Enchantress understand what the Beyonder was and why he brought a diverse number of super-beings to a distant, hastily-assembled world and established them in two camps which would engage in brutal battle; but until that time, she would "go with the flow," so to speak, appearing on the battlefield with her fellow villains as they fought their heroic enemies and, in lax moments, biding her time.

But as we know, the Enchantress, an Asgardian goddess who plays her own games of manipulation and deceit, doesn't tarry long when it comes to scheming her way to making certain she controls a given situation, either directly or by the use of a pawn to do her bidding, with or without their realizing it. Yet there are too many players on what would become known as "Battleworld," and all striving to meet the Beyonder's terms for victory: "Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours!" And there is no chance or means for her to affect the Beyonder himself, so enormously powerful and completely *ahem* beyond her reach.

So what options are left to her? In the scenes which follow, that's a question we'll explore as this goddess, in the company of a host of villains, nevertheless finds herself isolated and uncertain as to how to gain leverage for herself in the overwhelming shadow of the Beyonder.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Pilgrims Everywhere Are Curious

Those of you who read Marvel Feature #1 (and/or the scintillating PPoC post reviewing it) which presented the debut of the dynamic Defenders  may have been wondering about the very strange inking work of artist Bill Everett on that story. Letter-writer Charles Meyerson bottom-lines it for us:

"The interior artwork was nice, but I wish that Bill Everett would revert to his crisp, clear style of inking. That scritchy-scratchy style is not at all suited to Ross Andru's pencils."

Whatever description of the work I was going for couldn't hold a candle to "scritchy-scratchy," so we'll go with that. As for the response, Marvel's designated response typist for "Defenders Dialogue" that month addressed every other point that Mr. Meyerson raised, but deftly sidestepped the scritchy-scratchy issue (it just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) thusly:

"Finally, Roy and Ross have moved on to a new Marvel surprise, so how does Steve and Sal's work grab you? We'll be interested to hear, pilgrim."

Which we can probably take to mean, "That's on a need-to-know basis, pilgrim."

To add a little clarity to the situation, Vol. 1 of the Defenders Masterworks contains this quote from Thomas on the subject:

As noted, Everett skipped MF #2, but was present and accounted for in issue #3--and that went double for his inking, which returned to the quality that long-time Bill Everett fans remember well. So enjoy a quick peek at select scenes from that story, amply demonstrating that both Everett and Andru earned their pay for the week on this one.

What do you want to bet that druggist helped himself to a few samples from his prescription-only inventory following that encounter?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Malice By Crimson Moonlight!

Continuing our look at the Black Panther's story arc from 1973-75, Panther's Rage, we last saw the Panther confront and defeat an agent of his mortal enemy, Erik Killmonger--the man called Venomm, who oversaw a mining operation designed to secretly abscond with Wakanda's rich deposits of Vibranium but who hadn't counted on the Panther following the snake artist's own Death Regiments back through the tunnels that led to the Vibranium mound.

Then and there, the Panther resolved to end the threat to his kingdom; but in this next installment, it seems at first glance that the Panther faces threats from all sides, including yet another warrior in the service of Killlmonger, the powerful and confident Malice. And as we'll see, as far as the mission that brings her to T'Challa's very doorstep, her name is self-explanatory.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Day Of The Defenders!

It's unclear whether or not Dr. Strange had the good sense to take further steps in securing the Omegatron--the doomsday device created by the scientist/sorcerer known as Yandroth to explode the world's nuclear stockpiles at the moment the device speaks its creator's name--following its previous attempt to power itself to a sufficient level to carry out its task. Since the Omegatron is a creation of both science and magic, Strange doesn't seem to believe his power can affect it at all--"Too potent is the mixture of science and sorcery that birthed [it]." Only the Valkyrie, armed with the Black Knight's ebony blade, was able to damage it to a point where it was incapacitated--but like a Timex watch, the darned thing appears to be able to take a licking but keep on ticking. Only in the Omegatron's case, its countdown has run its course, and it only awaits the power it needs to activate its deadly conflagration.

Yet we have the Omegatron to thank for bringing together a new group of heroes--only don't make the mistake of calling them a "team,"  at least within earshot.

This premiere issue of Marvel Feature was published during the last month of 1971, with an eye-catching cover by Neal Adams that practically guaranteed a double-take from the comics rack browser. (Did these three cause the destruction and panic going on in the background--or have they just dealt with whoever did? Haven't you wondered?) Since Strange had previous and separate dealings with both the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk when they fought together in common cause, it was likely no complication for writer Roy Thomas (who scripted those earlier instances) to craft another story involving them, which was workable as a one-shot (or even a two-shot)--yet, what was the plan here? The Bullpen Bulletins page plugging the Marvel Feature title described it as a quarterly book that "will present try-out stories for new series, new ideas"--so it appeared that Thomas was floating the concept of the Defenders as a new series to be picked up later, depending on initial sales. But did he look that far down the road with this concept? Men like Namor and the Hulk could be coaxed to join Strange on those rare occasions when the need was desperate enough--but was Thomas expecting that to do the trick on a regular basis?

At any rate, the "Defenders" were an intriguing concept that deserved a look, and Thomas crafted a compelling enough story to launch it--with Strange's old enemy, Yandroth, at death's door, yet who warns of dire consequences from beyond the grave.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Who Was My Killer??

As disappointing as it was as a comics reader to run into an inventory story that put the brakes on a major story arc and ended up making the inventory story itself the fall guy, in retrospect it's interesting to go back and take a look at some of those stories in a different light and perhaps see how well they stand on their own. After all, such an issue was crafted as any other--only in reading it as a one-shot, you're not grumbling about a hiccup in the story you were expecting and/or the jolt of suddenly seeing a different artist's work on the character(s).

In that sense, this 1978 issue of Captain America grabs you from the start--with a striking cover by Mike Zeck that (regrettably) steals the thunder from his splash page.

There's a mystery element to this issue right away, since it isn't every new Cap story that starts with the title character being found floating face-up in the Hudson River--but you haven't seen the half of it. We of course don't know who or what did this to Cap, though it seems reasonably clear that the intent was to kill him; but fortunately, our two Bronx joggers who fish him out discover that he's just barely alive and lug him back to their apartment (apparently there are no ERs in the Bronx), where Cap awakens and finds that the mystery of what happened to him has only become more maddening.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

...And Spidey Makes Five!

We've previously seen a part of Fantantic Four history which dealt with the conflicted feelings of Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, in regard to both Reed Richards and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. And though those feelings were eventually resolved in Reed's favor, it was touch and go for Reed, given the amount of time Sue was taking in making up her mind.

In the penultimate issue to that conflict's resolution, it was the Puppet Master's control of Namor which forced the issue once more, though once again Namor would meet with disappointment--as would Reed for much the same reason, since Sue agreeing to return with Reed and the rest of the FF wasn't the same as a declaration of love for him. But in an early 1977 story which in essence retold the events of that tale from a different angle, Sue would have an opportunity to make a different choice, and perhaps make a new beginning for herself.

As for that "different angle," we have only to glance at the prominent figure positioned in the center of that issue's cover to understand what--who--it is we're talking about.

Even the Watcher must have thought his eyes were playing tricks on him at the sight of that.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Play It Again, Sue

In the earliest stories of Fantastic Four which featured the Sub-Mariner, readers were strung along as a love triangle developed between Namor, Sue Storm, and Reed Richards, with Sue finding it difficult to declare which of the two men held her heart. And it all started with one scene, where a vengeful Namor reappears after a long absence and vows war against the human race, but whose rage is tempered by the sight of one girl who stands with those attempting to stop his rampage.

Later accounts of this scene tend to read more into it than there is. After all, Sue isn't being wooed here, at least in terms she would take seriously, nor has she lost her heart on the spot; instead, she's being given an impossible choice to make: Become the Sub-Mariner's bride, or Namor resumes his war with humanity. Granted, artist Jack Kirby gives her an expression that could be viewed as regret in having to refuse Namor's offer; yet her spoken response suggests consternation rather than heartbreak, given that Namor comes across as being impulsive rather than giving us any sense of heartfelt love on his part. Yet in light of what's to come for these two, the scene is still attributed as the root of their attraction toward one another--and we can at least acknowledge that, for Sue, it was enough to keep Namor in her thoughts.

There were two pivotal issues which eventually followed that took steps to put the matter to rest, both of which had Sue being taken captive by the man who professed love for her. Leo Robin, who penned the lyrics to "Prisoner Of Love," would certainly have had these two in mind if he'd written the song thirty years later:

The latter of these stories actually settles the issue; but the first again maddeningly stokes the fire by making it clear that, not only is Sue's choice between Reed and Namor still a lingering issue, but she still hasn't made up her mind. Yet there's more to recommend this earlier tale than as another piece to the Namor/Sue/Reed quandary, with quite a lot of FF goodness crammed into its 22 pages to satisfy readers who by this time have become solid FF fans.

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