Monday, February 25, 2019

"Slay Your Enemies!"

If you ever looked for a brief change of scenery outside of the regular comics titles you picked up, and yet didn't really want to make a commitment beyond a few issues, you probably sampled a few of Marvel's various Limited Series that were published beginning in the 1980s and extending into the early 2000s. If so, you may appreciate the 2006 six-issue series, Beyond!, which I'll have to admit is one of the few comics which sold me on the first issue because of the sci-fi style of its masthead.

Yet the book's title has connotations, er, "beyond" the sensational and the vast void of outer space. Written by Dwayne McDuffie with art by Scott Kolins (the latter whom you may remember from his work on the Earth's Mightiest Heroes series from 2005), the story is an interesting follow-up of the Secret Wars concept from the mid-1980s which had sizable groups of both heroes and villains abducted and brought to an alien world to take part in a conflict that would have them at each others' throats. Unlike its predecessor, however, Beyond! had no commercial build-up associated with it, no ominous launch, no crossovers with its cast of characters and their own respective titles, and (as far as I know) no licensing deals for action figures. It does, obviously, depend in part on reader familiarity with what the word "Beyond" signifies in the Marvel universe--but there are sufficient alterations in its plot to tug at your curiosity and have you investing yourself in the story on its own merits. And yes, the Beyonder can again be said to be the driving force of this story, in a manner of speaking--the meaning of which becomes clear when the story reaches its climax.

As for the characters involved this time around, we can already see that they all make up a single group of nine, rather than distinctive opposing sides--yet the group is diverse enough so that some could respond to the Beyonder's standard word-for-word challenge of being granted "all they desire" should they "slay their enemies." At the story's beginning, those individuals are: Henry Pym, the Wasp, Gravity, Medusa, Firebird, Spider-Man, Kraven the Hunter (son of Sergei Kravinoff), Venom, and the Hood. And while one-third of this group immediately stand out as those most likely to adhere to the Beyonder's conditions to the letter and slay their enemies for a prize such as what the Beyonder offers, there is one in particular who wastes no time making it clear to everyone how little value he holds for human life should push come to shove.

McDuffie and Kolins clearly have a way of getting our attention--and yes, we're indeed seeing this story's first fatality, as shocking as it seems. Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! Two of these three claims will turn out to be true; the third, not so much, though there's more to it than meets the eye.

Hoax or not, Medusa--who in 2006 is more regal than she's ever been presented--is determined to both decide and carry out Venom's punishment, even should it prove to be fatal. Given her fury and her will, that might well prove to be the case.

Venom fortunately is able to take advantage of the distraction and manages to escape; yet bursting through vital circuitry, he damages the engines of the replica of the massive transport enclosure that was used the first time around to capture the first group of individuals, sending it hurtling to and crashing on the surface of the world it was approaching.

When a head count is made, all aboard have survived--with the exception of Spider-Man, of course, and possibly Venom, who is unaccounted for. Yet a new individual arrives on the scene--Michael, a man we met at this story's beginning, as he departed a large collection of gravesites that, along with his words, implied that this contest of the Beyonder's had been played out many times before, leaving fatalities in their wake. With this recent group, Michael realizes that he may be witnessing the beginning of the end for some or all of them, as well. It adds an intriguing twist to what may have first seemed a recycling of the original Secret Wars premise.

But what happens next? There seems to be a difference of opinion on that subject.

With Dr. Pym now focusing his power on shrinking and expanding objects rather than himself, the group is at least well supplied, complete with an Avengers quinjet. But they don't get far before another "survivor" from a prior group appears and destroys the aircraft, scattering its passengers among the foliage below--and in the chaos, leaving behind another twist to this story that, like the first, is also in need of an explanation.

As for the current danger, the approaching and hostile Dragon Man triggers a transformation in Michael which reveals a cyber soldier that Spider-Man, if he were proven to be more than a dead man walking, could have vouched for.

Dragon Man has proven to be a formidable threat for just about any hero or villain who crosses his path--but there's something to be said about fighting fire with fire, even if the power of Firebird in this case can't help but ring familiar with X-Men readers.

Deathlok then delivers the coup de grĂ¢ce to Dragon Man--leaving everyone to take stock of their situation and, in the process, give each of these individuals some panel time that serves to not only invest the reader in the characters but give everyone in the group a chance to interact without a crisis forcing the issue.

It's high time, as well, that Michael go into detail about his own presence here, so that the others have some inkling as to what exactly is going on and how they proceed from here. The information he provides is startling: living on this planet for years, while watching these contests play out with hundreds of superbeings and then left to bury the corpses of those who didn't survive. (His own group was about as diverse as they come: Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau), Wonder Man, Darkhawk, Dracula, Terror, Coldblood, and Sleepwalker.

As for his continued presence on the planet, Michael also speaks of a deal he struck with the Beyonder: everyone in his group is returned to Earth, while he agrees to remain. The story leaves it at that, for now; you'd think that the others would want to inquire on the specifics, but McDuffie apparently feels otherwise and sidesteps such a scene. It's also curious that two individuals from the original group--the Wasp and Spider-Man--have been brought to this world to participate a second time, though perhaps the Wasp serves as a reference point so that Michael's own story isn't as long-winded as it would have been otherwise.

As the group prepares to move out, however, another complication is dropped into their midst--courtesy of the Hood, who, like Kraven, has encountered the fatally wounded yet still alive Spider-Man in the woods and isn't convinced of his bona fides.

Given the nature of the Space Phantom's power, his appearance means that the real Spider-Man, who was sent to Limbo while the Phantom took his form, has now reappeared on Earth, alive and with likely no memory of what happened to him. As for the Phantom, it seems he was traded to the Beyonder by Immortus in exchange for his own safety.

McDuffie's story loses its way at the two-thirds mark of the series, with the group making the decision to trade the Phantom to the Beyonder in exchange for their return to Earth. The logic there is questionable, since the Phantom has already been traded to the Beyonder; nevertheless, the Phantom resists and takes the form of Xemnu, the Titan, apparently no longer needing to be in proximity to the one he switches places with. The resulting battle takes nearly the entirety of the series' fourth issue before he's taken down, only to escape by changing his form to that of the speedster, Northstar. That leads to the group taking a jaunt to Limbo to wait out the Phantom, thanks to a dimensional transporter that Pym unshrinks from his case; but when they arrive, someone we've all forgotten about effectively traps them there by destroying their way back.

For what it's worth, Venom's declaration to the Beyonder goes unanswered, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, there's more interaction between the group members while Pym does his best to devise a way out of Limbo, which provides some interesting moments for these characters. For instance, Gravity finds some common ground with the Hood, both having left behind loved ones on Earth; while the Wasp, who's been having some issues with Pym, bends the ear of someone who obviously is on steady ground with her significant other.

Meanwhile, having frustrated Venom with the fact that the reason he hasn't been responded to by the Beyonder is that the others are still alive, "Northstar" returns to Limbo to make further plans and is subsequently snared by Gravity.  Subsequently, under the not-so-tender mercies of both Kraven and the Hood, the Phantom agrees to transport them out of Limbo, where they discover Venom--and one other.

To make matters even more confusing, and certainly much worse, Venom decides to make his move and act in accordance with the Beyonder's terms--especially the part about "slay your enemies." Yet he makes the mistake of selecting Firebird as his first victim, a young woman whom Pym has grown much closer to--but when Venom pays the price, it appears that Pym is following suit in making sure that he'll be the last one standing to accept the Beyonder's reward.

By now, this story may be reminding you a little of the Avengers Forever twelve-issue series from 1999 (another story where the Space Phantom is in the thick of things) where, by the time it reached its climax, it was difficult to keep track of just who responsible for what, and why--with a cast of characters that had mushroomed. At any rate, with Pym's actions, the page is turned to the final issue of the series, at last--and Pym stands ready to make his desires known to the Beyonder, which admittedly makes one believe by now that Pym can sink no lower than he already has.

But all is not what it seems--including, most especially, the Beyonder.

The Stranger goes on to state that the Beyonder's methods of studying the humans he'd transported to Battleworld were suitable enough to use in accordance with his own studies of our race. Yet Pym's third wish specifically stipulates that the Stranger cease and desist with this particular experiment, the only wish that he outright refuses to comply with. It's then that Pym restores (i.e., enlarges) everyone in the group that he'd "slain"--and the group as a whole now faces the rationale of the Stranger, who now has no intention of keeping his part of the bargain.

The final conflict is fierce, with the group at least holding their own; yet they're inspired to press the attack since they're under the belief that the Watcher is present to observe something of great importance, which they conclude must be the Stranger's defeat. And as they battle on, the Stranger wonders the same, and demands that the Watcher confirm that assumption--and though the Watcher remains silent, the Stranger eventually stands down, granting Pym full compliance with his third wish.

Yet their race to get off the planet is complicated by the Stranger's departure, since its stability was tied to the will that maintained it. To gain the others time, Gravity makes the supreme effort in keeping the planet intact long enough for them to launch their transport back into space, though he pays the price with his life.

In the story's epilogue, we learn that the Watcher's purpose was to witness the death of "a great hero, a being of profound destiny whose influence has only just begun." Thankfully, with the end of the Stranger's appalling experiment, there will be no more corpses to be buried on Battleworld--but it seems that, whatever form it takes, the story of young Greg Willis has yet to see its end.

A few of the unfortunates that Michael laid to their final rest.
Can you (gulp!) identify the bodies?

Beyond! (Six-Issue Limited Series)

Script: Dwayne McDuffie
Pencils and Inks: Scott Kolins
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

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