Monday, April 29, 2019

Victory Once More for the Frightful Four!

While I've never made a top ten list of my favorite comics stories, I feel confident in saying for the record that I can place in my top five list the 1965 three-issue story arc which features the Fantastic Four in their third and final battle with the original Frightful Four, a masterpiece of storytelling by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta that cooks on all cylinders and would finally settle accounts between the FF and their evil counterparts who had defeated them in the past--and, in this no-holds-barred struggle, very, very nearly manage to do so again.

Over time, the Frightful Four would become less noteworthy as their ever-shifting lineup became a revolving door of villains in attempts to establish new chemistry between their members, their criminal endeavors countered by either the FF or others who were less impressed by their threat. But in '65 they were a formidable threat that became a dogged menace to the FF--a group of unsavory characters who really didn't get along under the same roof but were kept in line by the Wizard, whose ruthlessness could match their own and who provided direction and tactics that balanced their abilities and made them dangerous adversaries. Banded together, they were villains to the core, sniping at each other and jockeying for position, but who put their bickering aside when it was time to unite and take down their foes.

This story saw them at the peak of their powers and villainy--and the Fantastic Four were frankly in no shape to face them. The Thing, barely able to walk following a one-on-one battle with Doctor Doom, bitterly leaves the FF for good--which not only leaves his former partners at their most vulnerable.  And as we'll discover, that assessment might hold true for himself, as well.

For their part, the rest of the FF, understandably downcast about the circumstances of Ben's departure, turn their attention to picking up the pieces in the wake of their conflict with Doom; but following a visit from the tearful Alicia Masters, they begin a search for the Thing in order to make certain he needs no medical care. Unfortunately, just to show you how small a world it really is, another group happens upon him first--and what treatment they intend for him remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Land Of The Pharaohs!

It's always a treat to pick out a Roger Stern Doctor Strange story for a PPC review (and, honestly, that goes for just about any Roger Stern story), but this particular story brings double the pleasure since it cleverly intersects with a classic Fantastic Four tale from 1963 and breathes new life into a plot that has over twenty years of dust covering it. And considerably more dust than that, considering that Strange and the FF are showing up in the year 2940 B.C.!

We know from the original tale that the FF have used Dr. Doom's time machine to investigate ancient hieroglyphics that indicate the existence of a substance which restores sight to the blind, in the hope of using it to treat the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters. But what interest does that hold for Dr. Strange?

Monday, April 22, 2019

Quod Sum Eris

We're hip deep in a story by Jeph Loeb and Simone Bianchi that has Wolverine seeking out the meaning behind surfacing memories which appear to involve not only Victor Creed, a.k.a. the bloodthirsty Sabretooth, but also a new evolutionary species known as the Lupine. Part 1 saw that mystery bringing Logan and Creed to Wakanda, where it appears the Black Panther and his consort, Storm, are pursuing similar leads on the Lupine thanks to archaeological findings in an elephant graveyard. Creed, who hasn't been exactly forthcoming with any information which might help Logan decipher the meaning of it all, has at least acknowledged a latin phrase which appears to be at the root of the mental turmoil which Logan has experienced of late--Quod sum eris, "I am what you will be," a taunting statement from Creed that "the stretch of road ahead of you ends up lookin' like this" (meaning, himself). It's a claim that Wolverine understandably rejects outright.

But what of this bizarre collage of flashbacks that have been triggered by Logan's encounters with Creed? Behind them seems to be the most elusive key of all--a man named Romulus, a hulking, formidable figure whom Logan has "remembered" from a Colosseum setting and appears to be thousands of years old. And there will be more links to the answers he seeks as this story continues.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Wolverine vs. Sabretooth: The Final Battle!

Much is usually anticipated about the fierce and decidedly bloody clashes between Wolverine and Victor Creed, the man known as Sabretooth, even though these men are arguably two sides of the same coin. Each of them has deadly claws that rend and draw blood; each has a generous amount of fear and intimidation working for them; each has a healing factor that prevents them from being mortally wounded (eventually reaching preposterous levels of effectiveness); and each has killed and will kill if the situation calls for it. Yet there are differences, as well: Logan's skeleton, as well as his claws, are made of the unbreakable metal known as adamantium; and while there have often been instances where he's been shown to be merciless, he's not nearly as sadistic as Creed, who will not hesitate to kill even when there is no reason for it. Perhaps the difference that keeps us engaged, however, is the fact that, while crusty and irascible even on the best of days, Logan isn't volatile--and rather than looking for a fight, he'll often look to avoid one (though he's certainly no slouch at provocation). Creed, put bluntly, is a monster, who will gut innocents with little thought or consideration beforehand, depending on his mood or what message he wants to send.

Yet, character differences aside, when these two are locked in battle, what can come of it, given that the most they can do is slash and maim? A chance to see how their artist will handle their match, no doubt--and a great deal of posturing and threats on both their parts, to be sure. But since there's little to no chance of one dealing fatally with the other, their clash often comes down to a battle of wills, and essence. We know we can expect little more than sadism from Creed; but from Logan, his anger and trademark fierceness (and yes, bloodletting) are channeled into stopping Creed's killing spree and ending his threat, while hopefully coming out of it without seeing more of Creed in himself than he'd like. And that's essentially the approach in their early appearances in Uncanny X-Men--where it's probably no coincidence that these particular two characters are unleashed against each other just when Marvel's books have taken a sharp turn toward bringing more graphic violence into their pages with the appearance of the Marauders and the wholesale slaughter of innocent men, women, and children.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"...And So It Ends!"

For the Fantastic Four, things were about as dire as they could be, following a fierce struggle with one of their own--Ben Grimm, the Thing, who had been turned against them because of the Mad Thinker's interference with a procedure meant to revert him to his human form. But the danger of their situation only increased when the arduous battle left them vulnerable to an attack by the Thinker's killer android, which enters the scene to find only one of the FF standing to meet its threat.

But how can Sue Richards prevail against one of the Thinker's deadliest, unliving creations? Let's find out, as we reach the climax of a four-part story where the Fantastic Four must pick up the pieces from the Thing's brutal assault only to find themselves virtually helpless against a new, super-powered threat--and while the fate of Ben Grimm remains uncertain, the Invisible Girl battles alone!

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mission: Destroy The Fantastic Four!

There's probably no lack of consensus in the assertion that Reed Richards expended no small amount of man hours toiling away in his lab in his efforts to cure his friend, Ben Grimm, of his monstrous state as the Thing--the only member of the Fantastic Four unable to revert to his human form following the group's aborted space flight that infused them with cosmic rays and made them something more than human. Having met one failure after another, Ben naturally became more despondent, even reaching the point where he regarded each new attempt with skepticism and doubt going in, while not allowing himself to build up his hopes. But there was an instance when his perspective changed, following the team's rescue of Alicia Masters from her encounter with a group of scientists who sought to create the first in a new race of perfect human beings--and with anguished fervor, he again approaches Reed and pleads with him to renew his efforts on his behalf.

To that end, Reed requests the help of renowned chemist Dr. Santini, who just happens to have developed a substance which will undo the effects of cosmic radiation.* What Reed doesn't realize is that Santini has been intercepted and imprisoned on arrival by an evil figure in shadows, who subjects him to hypnosis and learns the details of his project with Reed. Consequently, it isn't Santini who arrives at the Baxter Building, but our villain in disguise.

*The good doctor seems to have a lot of time on his hands--has there been an outbreak of cosmic radiation poisoning among humans that we're all unaware of?

It's admittedly almost heartbreaking to realize, as a reader, that Ben's hopes are about to be dashed once more, though Santini plans to go much further than having the experiment merely fail. And the cover to the first issue of this blockbuster four-part story from 1967-68 unfortunately seems to be a portent of, er, "things" to come.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Clash Of Patriots! Captain America vs. the Red Guardian

If I were to pick a block of Avengers stories that stand out in my mind as helping the title turn the corner and cement its status as a must-buy (for me at least) while establishing its momentum for the future, it would have to be the nine issues that began in the spring of 1968 and lasted through January of '69, as the team (or what was left of it) began building themselves back into a fighting force after the sudden exits of Hercules, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and, of all people, Captain America. Yet the Avengers ball originally started rolling for me in the fall of '67*, with a two-part story that was one of my earliest as an Avengers reader and served as an indication to me that the book and its characters might be worth following on a more regular basis.

*The Avengers was one of several Marvel titles I'd been working my way backward through, having only caught the comics bug sometime around 1971.

Aside from the fact that, with Hercules added to their ranks, the Avengers were virtually an unbeatable strike force that could be inserted into any number of situations, both at home and worldwide, writer Roy Thomas is keeping them busy in these issues with a number of developments. There's the continuing mystery of Madame Natasha, the Black Widow, whose formal status as an Avenger is still undecided--now even more so, since she's reported having returned to behind the Bamboo Curtain to once more be in the service of Colonel Ling, her old employer when she was a spy. But Ling has also recruited a Russian agent to be trained as a counterpart to Captain America--Alexi Shostakov, the Red Guardian, though there's an asterisk tucked away in his file that will come as a surprise to Hawkeye.

Yet before we wade into this story's central conflict, we begin with one of Thomas's more questionable developments, one that perhaps no one saw coming.

I'm not sure of the reasoning of taking a running speedster and putting him in the air, no matter how fast and furiously his legs are vibrating to keep him there. And if Quicksilver has never stood out in your mind as having the ability to fly--well, that probably says it all, doesn't it.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Part-Time Captain Marvel

In the fall of 1969, the creative team of Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Dan Adkins* was piped aboard the flagging series Captain Marvel to presumably inject its title character with new life--though in hindsight, it could be argued that too much emphasis was perhaps placed on revitalizing Mar-vell without giving much thought to how to structure the series itself from this point on. If true, what happened afterward shouldn't have come as a surprise. The "new" Captain Marvel went on hiatus after just three issues, in what would be an absence of six months--after which, Thomas and his team returned to contribute an additional two (bi-monthly) issues which effectively nailed the coffin lid shut on the book for the near-future, relegating Mar-vell to the role of guest-star in other stories where he could hopefully benefit from the exposure he would receive from high-profile characters like the Avengers.

*Artist John Buscema was also brought in to pencil the final half of the team's second issue, which seemed to be an indication that this new direction for Mar-vell was rather abruptly thrown together.

It wasn't the first such attempt to tweak Mar-vell's makeup. Even after only ten issues of his regular title were published, the character was given "powers" that would bring him closer to being associated with Marvel's super-hero ranks (if not to take his place among them quite yet)--thanks to an elaborate deception initiated by Kree Imperial Minister Zarek and Ronan the Accuser, as part of a coup designed to seize power from the Supreme Intelligence. Mar-vell falls for the ruse hook, line and sinker, pledging himself to the service of an all-powerful being named "Zo" and consequently being granted impressive new abilities accordingly.

Despite the machinations of Zarek and Ronan, however, the coup fails--resulting in Mar-vell being recalled from Earth and honored for bravery for his efforts against their plot (which included their pawn and Mar-vell's enemy, Colonel Yon-rogg). That honor leads to Mar-vell receiving distinctive new garb, though it comes with a condition:

As we'll learn, Mar-vell's abilities would be further revised following his return to Earth.  Currently, however, he retains some of the powers granted by "Zo":  He doesn't "teleport" per se, though he can travel in the void of space at great speed... and the jury is out on whether he still has his illusion-casting ability.

As Mar-vell takes off for Earth once more to resume his pursuit of Yon-rogg, we see the first instance of the curious adversity he's saddled with regarding his virtual imprisonment within the nightmarish Negative Zone. To the reader, it appears that the Intelligence has suddenly and inexplicably changed his tune in his regard toward Mar-vell, though we would later discover that it seems geared toward aligning Mar-vell's life with that of Rick Jones, and vice versa.

Friday, April 5, 2019

At The Mercy Of The Skull!

The Red Skull has regained the Cosmic Cube! And you know what that means: REVENGE!

But if that's the case, why would the Skull be behaving as if his world has come to an end? Let's listen in and find out:

So that's the explanation--it's Cap who's folding like a cheap tent, and not the Skull. And that's cause for concern, since it represents a fundamental shift in his character; after all, it was Cap who fought on against the Skull when he previously held the Cube, and eventually triumphed... nor did he allow himself to succumb to panic and despair when he again found himself the victim of an apparent body/mind swap. So why is he all but ready to throw in the towel here? And on the subject of odd behavior, what's with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter, who doesn't raise a single objection when "Cap" doesn't bother to take the Red Skull--the Red Skull, mind you--into custody, to be turned over to SHIELD? No war crimes trial for this guy? No prison time? A swat on the wrist for his atrocities as a Nazi?

Later, however, the Skull definitely takes an interest in Cap, if only to make the man's life miserable--and surely Captain America finding himself the object of a manhunt provides the Skull with sufficient cause for amusement.

Nor is the dragnet limited to the police force, it seems:

But what of Rick Jones, now Cap's costumed partner? With Cap having recently gone missing, Rick begins to wonder if Cap is intentionally keeping his distance from him; but when he believes he's caught up with him, Rick receives the impression that, to "Cap," he's just loose baggage.

Consequently, Rick would hang up his Bucky costume and pivot to a new association with Captain Marvel. As for Cap, with nowhere else to turn, he heads for Avengers Mansion in the hopes that they can help to reverse what the Cube has done to him. Of course, if the Red Skull invades your headquarters, one isn't likely to be inclined to put out the welcome mat.

Cap catches a break with the SHIELD alert diverting the Avengers, though that depends on how you look at it. With the Skull monitoring via the Cube the developments with Cap, he decides to give his foe even more grief by transporting him to the island where the Skull's associates, the Exiles, await--but so, too, does Cap's first meeting with the Falcon, the man who would become his friend and one of his closest allies. Together, they eventually overcome the Skull's machinations--and soon, a new partnership is born.

That certainly seems to be going around...

Rick Jones shazams his way into the life of--Captain Marvel!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

These Boots Were Made For Clodhopperin'

Four years ago, the PPC dared to tell you that we'd wrapped up our look at Assistant Editors' Month--that under-the-radar event where Marvel's staff of editors, who had flown en masse to attend the 1984 San Diego Comic Con, ceded responsibility for January's issues and stories to their subordinates in the editorial ranks of the company. That month, many of Marvel's covers carried an imposing stamp which warned that we might see a few of those editors peeking out from behind the curtain and playing a little mischief with our reading experience while the cat was away:

But some of these stories still turn up on our radar from time to time, and, like Marvel's dreaded inventory shelf, no story goes to waste here.* Though from his expression, the Thing might wish otherwise!

*Well, some do; that is, there are some stories which even the PPC is hesitant to touch with a ten-foot pole.

As with a few other stories which carried the AEM stamp, this one by John Byrne and Ron Wilson begins rather normally, as we find Ben Grimm visiting his girlfriend, sculptress Alicia Masters, in the hospital where she recovers from sustaining injuries at the hands of Annihilus. What isn't normal behavior for Ben is that he has begun thinking about his own mortality--and that, given his choice of vocation, the odds are in favor of meeting his death in some battle before he's ready to choose to retire and start a new life with Alicia. It's a strange perspective for Byrne to have him dwell on, particularly in light of the fact that Ben only has to look to his partner and best friend, Reed Richards, to see that his current occupation and his wish to be with Alicia need not be mutually exclusive.

Regardless, his thoughts on the matter are heavy on his mind once he leaves and, shortly afterward, decides to intervene in a bank holdup--where he finds a foe unlike any other he's dealt with, and more of a threat than he bargained for.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Great Pecos Train Robbery!

There have often been times when you couldn't read an Avengers story without tripping over the schemes of Kang the Conqueror, the time-traveling menace from the future who seems to have made it his life's calling to destroy the Avengers. Kang has become a virtual staple of the book in terms of jockeying for the position of all-time recurrent Avengers villain, thanks to writers like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and certainly Roger Stern--but it was Steve Englehart who recycled Kang into any number of Avengers plots, which even had the Vision exclaiming, "Again? This is getting monotonous!" and drove Thor to the point of taking a enough-is-enough approach and swearing that "...this battle shall be the last 'tween him and us!"

Well, we'll see about that--but we still found that we could have some fun along the way, thanks to a story published at the tail end of 1975 that found the Avengers pursuing Kang to, of all places, the old west!

So saddle up, hombres--there's owlhoots a'plenty waitin' ahead.