Friday, June 28, 2019

The Psycho-Man Bids.... Death!

To hear the conversation that takes place in the opening pages of the 1998 X-Men/Fantastic Four Annual, you would think that the X-Men never shared a word with Wolverine about a 1996 game of poker that took place in the Angel's Soho loft, where Sam Guthrie was revealed to be a card hustler of the first order--playing the innocent farm boy from Kentucky angle for all it was worth, before he was invited into the game by his fellow X-Men (at the suggestion of Ben Grimm, the Thing) and subsequently proceeded to deprive the other players of their chips in no time.

For this evening's game, which the Thing will host at the FF's headquarters (now located at Pier Four), it would seem that Sam is laying the foundation for yet another hustle--no mean feat, since Logan has become something of a regular at these poker get-togethers and would probably see someone like Sam coming a mile away. Though he appears to be so focused on his plans for Sam that it doesn't occur to him that it's not the Thing he should be keeping his eye on tonight.

As for Ben, he's sweeping Reed and Sue Richards out the door as inconspicuously as he can--but Johnny is another matter, since on this night Ben plans on initiating his young partner into the big leagues.

But tonight, even a villain will want to be dealt in for

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

This Hero Reborn!

There may have been a collective sigh of relief that echoed through the ranks of Marveldom assembled following the conclusion of the Onslaught crossover event which served as a prelude to Marvel wiping its slate clean and starting anew--while readers, for their part, likely felt on the verge of finally putting the comics of the 1990s in our rear-view mirror and swinging the doors wide on the year 2000 to see what Marvel had to offer for the 21st century. And January of that year indeed looked promising, with new titles already in full swing, new talent on board, and, perhaps best of all, a return to artwork that didn't have its characters looking like they'd just stepped out of a funhouse mirror and sporting hair strands sharp enough to give Wolverine a run for his money.

Among the interesting new books coming down the pipe, one title caught my eye in particular--the refit of the Captain Marvel character, who reclaimed the name from Monica Rambeau and was given prime exposure in the Avengers Forever limited series. We can only assume that reader feedback on the character was favorable, if he was fast-tracked into his own series so quickly afterward (and with writer Peter David taking the reins of the book, at that). But there was of course also the hook of Captain Marvel being reintroduced, recreated, relaunched--though it wasn't Mar-vell, the original "man of the Kree," we'd be seeing, but his son, Genis-vell, artificially aged and determined to carry on his father's legacy as... well, "Legacy," the name he had taken before beginning a trial run in a 1995-96 six-issue series called (you guessed it) Captain Marvel.

But readers following the character from Avengers Forever to his new series were unintentional victims of bait-and-switch--because the mature, seasoned Captain Marvel featured in that book, who came into the story already an Avenger, was wiser, more battle-hardened, and more interesting than the Genis in the new Captain Marvel, a young man very in sync with Rick Jones given that the two are molecularly bonded. One would think that recycling the Rick/Captain Marvel union--which doomed the first C.M. series almost immediately and may have arguably been one of the factors which led to the cancellation of the second--would have been something to steer clear of in the third. But just look at the dizzying sequence of scenes which take place to get the character (and us) to where we need to be, one of which is adapted from what we witnessed between Rick and Mar-vell at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.

And when Rick is returned to present-day, along with Giant-Man and the Wasp, the new Captain Marvel is whipped up before our eyes and ready to be handed off to Mr. David.

Captain Marvel #0, packaged and exclusively sold with Wizard 2000, served to whet the appetite for our new character's new book, immediately involving him in a mystery where he battled an alien threat that only he was able to see; yet you need not have coughed up $5 for Wizard just to get a look at it, whereas the subsequent issue #1 catches you up sufficiently on where things stand, thanks to a visit from the L.A.P.D.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Thunder God, the Deceiver, and the Surfer!

Nearly seven years ago, I'd written pretty much what I felt was all I had to say about my take on the classic Silver Surfer #4 from early 1969. Looking over that post once more, I found myself nodding my head in reflection, mostly agreeing with the in-a-nutshell assessment I'd jotted down which wasn't exactly a glowing account of the handicap I'd felt the story was under and the various things that seemed to hamper it. But over the years, my head kept going back to that issue, which I still regard as one of the pinnacles of the Surfer's short-lived series. Writer Stan Lee boasts on the issue's splash page that its story is "perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time!", which in a broad sense has some truth to it. (Maybe not the greatest, but it's arguably right up there; I'd be hard-pressed to actually pick a number one.) That story was published over fifty years ago, and both writing and art still hold up incredibly well. The cover alone ranks in the top ten of all time (that call I am willing to put on record), while the story's pacing and gripping characterizations are prime examples of what established Marvel Comics as an industry juggernaut.

Which is partly what brings me back to it today, I suppose. The overriding reason, however, is that I haven't been comfortable with the short shrift I provided it, given its place in comics history and the effort that must have been put into its production--nor did I do the story justice, which I must say is a page-turner and not a bad Thor story, either. The prior post remains a "talking points" rundown of elements which are mostly focused on the Surfer vs. Thor scenario; but it's high time the PPC expanded on this classic tale and painted a more complete picture of its contribution to the genre that many of us have found to be so compelling.

And fittingly, we should begin with this issue's stand-out star--which in this case, contrary to the book's masthead, turns out to be someone other than a gleaming, glistening alien with a surfboard.

Friday, June 21, 2019

In Final Battle!

Even with the best security money can buy, a townhouse that's been revamped as a three-story mansion--located on Fifth Avenue and 71st Street in Manhattan and only a walkway's distance from street access--is going to be vulnerable to attack by a determined super-villain or group of villains. And that's the scenario the mighty Avengers now face, as they struggle to overcome the siege of their mansion by the Masters of Evil, who have struck while it was virtually deserted and, later, injured two Avengers while also leaving Hercules at death's door and their butler, Jarvis, in critical condition.

But though the Masters indeed seized the day--and the mansion--the Avengers have rallied and fought a hard-pitched battle against those who still occupy their headquarters, as they strive to secure for Jarvis the urgent medical care that he needs. Above, Captain Marvel has just dealt with Moonstone; but the immediate danger comes from the Masters' leader, Baron Zemo, who has ambushed Dr. Druid on the roof and regained control of his operative, Blackout, whose "darkforce" holds the key to tilting the odds in this battle back in the Masters' favor.

But though paralyzed by Zemo's weapon, Druid is still able to reach out to Blackout and influence him as to Zemo's true motives--and so the fight for Blackout becomes a battle between Druid's honesty and Zemo's duplicity, with Blackout struggling to assert his own identity.

Yet there are other struggles being waged below, in the sub-levels of the ravaged Avengers Mansion. Judging by this issue's cover, however, the deciding battle will take place in the light of day--though there may be precious little mansion, or Avengers, left to bear witness to it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The All-Out Attack of The Masters of Evil!

In 1987, the Masters of Evil seemed well on their way to becoming the evil equivalent of what the mighty Avengers eventually grew to be. In other words:

"If you're a villain, you may as well be one of the Masters of Evil."

At this point in time, the Masters have reformed under the leadership of Helmut Zemo, the son of the original hooded Nazi war criminal--though he first began his path to vengeance against Captain America as the Phoenix. At present, their roster numbers fifteen villains (not pictured is Whirlwind, sent to attack Cap separately); but unlike the Avengers, whose ranks swelled to surpass those of the X-Men (and that's saying something), Zemo wants his team on the large side for a specific and tactically sound reason.

But the other noteworthy thing about these Masters of Evil is that they're in for the long haul, and they're not stopping with wiping out the Avengers:

And so with an incremental, detailed plan, Zemo and the villains who have signed on to his agenda have made considerable strides toward achieving victory against a team that literally didn't see them coming. The list of fallen Avengers includes:

  • The Black Knight, ambushed in Avengers Mansion following its siege by the Masters;
  • Captain Marvel, also ignorant of the mansion's fall, trapped and exiled to another universe by the "darkforce" of the mentally damaged and often catatonic Blackout;
  • Hercules, inebriated and drugged by a woman in the employ of Zemo who treated him to a midnight cruise, attacked and beaten near to death by the Masters' most powerful bruisers;
  • Captain America, defeated by the Fixer's enhancements of the mansion's defenses; and last but by no means least,
  • Jarvis, mauled by Mr. Hyde in front of Cap and the Knight in order to break the former's spirit.

A separate attack by Titania and the Absorbing Man on the Wasp fails, as she picks up an ally in Scott Lang, the Ant-Man; but in the meantime, Blackout erects a darkforce barrier around the mansion which prevents any entry by the authorities, including the military.

Yet the Wasp rallies--and the battle against the Masters of Evil, and for the lives of those they've dealt with, begins in earnest, heralded by a bold cover which hints that this may well be the Avengers' finest hour... or their darkest.

Gee, they rarely include the Wasp in these "sales" shots, even as the team's leader. Why is that?

Monday, June 17, 2019

My Son... My Murderer!

When we last left Dracula, the Lord of the Undead... well, most people would finish that sentence with "...we were running for our lives!" But since we're merely readers reflecting on fiction, we can harmlessly cast our thoughts back to when we found Dracula in a grieving rage following the death of his infant son, Janus. That night, Dracula purged himself of a great deal of anguish and regret--and now, he heads back to the satanic church which was to become his power base in America, in order to rejoin his wife, Domini, and consider their future.

But Domini has her own plans for this evening--and she has returned to a cemetery in Cambridge, where she prepares a ritual that will wipe away her grief and sense of loss if it succeeds. Though there is one who will do his utmost to prevent it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Purging And The Plan!

While it's true that Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, can fly into a rage for any number of reasons, we tend to learn more about this sadistic and evil yet complicated man when that rage is the result of either personal betrayal or personal loss. One example of the latter can be found in his distant past, when his second wife, Maria, a woman he truly loved, was killed by an enemy Turk named Turac when they were both held captive, just shortly after Dracula became a vampire; and while perceived betrayal is nothing new to him, one instance that resonated deeply with him was when Shiela Whittier, a young woman he took pity on and unexpectedly found himself growing closer to, left him for another when she could no longer stomach his true nature.

Yet such instances pale beside the moment when Dracula's infant son, Janus, was slain before his eyes by Anton Lupeski, a priest in his satanic church whose intent was to kill Dracula but whose rifle shot instead hit the baby. You can correctly assume that Lupeski didn't survive the night; yet rather than to the side of his wife, Domini, the night is where Dracula retreats to vent his rage, his despair... and his deadly wrath.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Hulk Is Dead... Long Live The Hulk!

Following a battle with the uncanny U-Foes, which was broadcast and played out before the eyes of the world, the incredible Hulk--now controlled by the mind of Bruce Banner--successfully petitioned for amnesty, on the grounds that he was no longer a menace to society. And in a scene that no one present would soon forget, Banner was thereafter granted and accepted a presidential pardon which wiped the slate clean for him.

(Though taking your bows in the same shredded pants that people associated with the rampaging, monstrous Hulk isn't the greatest visual.)

If you were one of the many innocents who suffered financial loss or had their lives otherwise destroyed by the man-monster, tough cookies--though to be fair, your grievance is with the Hulk, and not the man who was for all intents and purposes a helpless bystander (albeit willingly living the life of a fugitive, rather than turning himself in). To Banner's credit, he only wishes now to return to a life of research and isn't seeking to be more visible on the hero circuit.

That's not to say he's averse to a truckload of ticker tape and applause along the way.

Monday, June 10, 2019

"Vengeance!" Cries The Valkyrie!

After reviewing the tragic saga of Barbara Norris, whose "as a lark" involvement with a cult of the Undying Ones led to imprisonment, surrender, madness, and suppression before finally finding peace, the resolution of Barbara's story has led us to the rebirth of Brunnhilde*, the Valkyrie, and awakened a thirst for vengeance against the sorceress who was responsible for holding her captive and using her as a pawn in her schemes. And now, in the company of the Defenders and restored at long last to her true body, the Valkyrie locks eyes with the Enchantress and issues a challenge for which she will brook no refusal.

*Up until now, writer J.M. DeMatteis has been spelling the Valkyrie's name as "Brunnhilde"--though with co-plotter Mark Gruenwald** coming aboard this issue and doing some of the scripting, the spelling now shifts to "Brunnhilda" for whatever reason. In point of fact, the spelling of the Valkyrie's name has been sundry, depending on the source material (e.g., Brynhildr, Brunhild, Brunhilde, Brünhild, and heaven knows how many other variations are included in accounts); but since a majority of Marvel forums list it as "Brunnhilde," that spelling will be used here for the sake of consistency.

**I wasn't aware of Gruenwald's scripting assist at the time, but while re-reading this story for the PPC I found myself thinking, "Gee, DeMatteis is sounding a lot like Mark Gruenwald in places"--i.e., more verbose, explanatory dialog than DeMatteis would typically offer. Needless to say that spotting Mr. Gruenwald's name in the scripting credits produced a slow nod of acknowledgment.

Given the extent of her power and that she's more than proven her resourcefulness in past battles, it might be fair to presume that the Enchantress holds the edge here; as long as she doesn't allow the Valkyrie to close with her, her spells allow her to strike from a distance and either contain or affect the Valkyrie in any number of ways. How would you like noodles for arms, Brunnhilde? What about temporary blindness? Your sword turning against you? Just the tip of the iceberg of options available to the Enchantress, any one of which would prove to be sufficient distraction (or worse) that would render her foe helpless to evade the killing stroke.

But try telling that to the Valkyrie in her current mood.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Prisoner... The Madness... The Goddess!

Most of you are probably familiar with the woman named Barbara Norris from the pages of The Defenders, either when she was rescued from the dimension of the Undying Ones or through her association with the woman warrior called the Valkyrie. Yet we first met her when she and her husband, Jack, were cultists attempting to bridge the path to Earth for the Undying Ones by using the Hulk to remove the Night-Crawler, the guardian of the border between the two dimensions.

As we can see, Barbara is having second thoughts about what they're doing, particularly now that they've helped to put the life of an innocent man in danger. And Barbara's doubts haven't gone unnoticed by Van Nyborg, the cult's leader, who has her seized and hurled into the void to share Banner's fate. Yet when the Hulk appears and fights to protect Barbara, she stands valiantly with him and even acts to save him--though the conflict escalates to the point where the domain of the Night-Crawler is destroyed, forcing them all to transport to the universe of the Undying Ones.

And that universe has been visited before, by the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange--with Strange sacrificing himself in order to allow Namor to escape. And now, Barbara, finding herself in the same position, doesn't hesitate to act to save both Strange and the Hulk.

Cut to 2½ years later, when the Defenders assemble (heh) to help the Silver Surfer escape his imprisonment on Earth by moving dimensionally past the barrier of Galactus. Only the dimension which they find themselves in rings familiar to all three Defenders, especially when they come across a mystic prison that once held Strange and still appears to hold the girl who helped him to gain his freedom.

Yet the Defenders have fallen for an elaborate ruse by the Nameless One, two conjoined monsters who now shockingly reveal themselves as having mated with their former captive.

The battle between the Defenders and the Nameless One is fierce--but the ethereal prison that trapped both Strange and Barbara would now serve to trap their former jailer, thanks to snares devised by Strange and the Surfer. And yet Strange still sees Barbara as a captive of their foe, and moves to help her--with unfortunate consequences.

We could argue that Barbara was already doomed by the time the Defenders arrived, and that Strange's rash albeit well-intentioned intervention made little difference in regard to her fate--but hold that thought for a bit.

When the Defenders return to Earth (with Barbara), they fall into a plot by the Enchantress to reclaim her partner, the Executioner, from a rival sorceress, Casiolena--and when the Enchantress decides to conjure some backup, the Valkyrie makes her debut appearance in the book.

Following that episode, and abandoned by the Enchantress, the Valkyrie decides to cast her lot with the Defenders, her persona continuing to completely suppress that of Barbara. Yet we know that, by the time of the book's cancellation thirteen years later to the month, the Valkyrie had fully reclaimed and embraced her Asgardian heritage.

Which bumps Niflheim to the top of our travel itinerary, in order to resolve yet another

Marvel Trivia Question

Whatever became of the consciousness of Barbara Norris?

Monday, June 3, 2019

This Cave... My Tomb!

In the fall of 1984, Marvel's first volume of What If stories would come to an end after what could be seen as a successful 7½-year run of forty-seven double-sized issues, each published bi-monthly*. For Marvel to have expended the resources and the time to publish what was essentially the equivalent of six annuals per year, it stands to reason that What If must have been turning in quite a profit (in contrast to, for example, Silver Surfer, which ceased its double-sized format after just seven issues)--nor did its bi-monthly schedule appear to be a hindrance to its sales, since each story was a one-shot and no single concept needed to be promoted on a timely basis (unless you count its main theme of providing alternate outcomes to previous Marvel stories).

*For the most part. On occasion, you would see a brief shift to monthly publication, usually in response to what had been a three-month lag between issues.

There came a time, however, when even a two-month window (still considered a "back-breaking" schedule, according to Editor Ralph Macchio) wasn't enough for staff to throw together a story and line up a writer/artist team to produce it. And so the dreaded letters page box (appropriately tinged in pink) that heralds a book's end appeared in the series' final issue to deliver the sad news--though this time with a twist, as Macchio explains:

Basically, What If would take on the status of work by writers or other artists who aren't necessarily bound by a publishing or record company to submit X number of books or albums within a specific period of time--the important difference, of course, being that those products remain in circulation well after the initial release and aren't quickly relegated to back-issue outlets which funnel no profits back to the source company. For this new distribution of What If to be literally worth the wait, Marvel would have to release a much larger amount of issue copies when the time came and gamble that most if not all of them would sell--quite a leap to take for a product that will be even less visible in stores from this point on.

As it happened, whatever "unbelievable things" Macchio had planned for the book failed to materialize, as did the book itself. What If wouldn't be seen in stores again until five years later when the series re-launched, this time with a lower page count and a monthly schedule, eventually finishing with a run of just short of nine years and totaling 114 issues--perhaps as good an indication as any that no buyer really expects a masterpiece or perfection, and that only an eye-catching concept and a (hopefully) well-told, well-rendered story are essentials to a comics reader.

As for its final tale in '84, we have the eye-catching concept in the form of a cover by Bill Sienkiewicz, and, depending on how you felt about Loki as a motivating factor in getting you to hand over a dollar of your hard-earned cash, a title that implied that the story of Thor would end in tragedy or worse before it could even begin.