Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Kids, Don't Try This At Home

It's only a day before Halloween, but I'm guessing some of you are still thinking of ways to occupy your time for that all-hallows evening. And if that's the case, and you're looking for something a little on the gruesome side (and who isn't?), why not follow the example of a man who, hands down, wins the award for


Yes, I can guess what you're thinking: This is too creepy, even for Halloween. Crosses the line. Comicsfan has turned a dark corner somewhere and probably should be medevaced to Bellevue, yesterday.

So what is it with this guy? Well, as unsettling as it is to be on a first-name basis with someone who's getting comfy with a corpse, his name is Chernak--and not only is Chernak disturbingly happy about what he's doing, but very quickly it becomes apparent that he's got something else in mind than what we're assuming at first glance.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Partners In Peril!

OR: "Of Kicks and Kickbacks!"

The illusion of time spent in regard to the comics industry and one's enjoyment of all that comes from it is a curious thing from the reader's perspective, as entire months can go by almost unnoticed while you're enjoying the work of a creative team--one that may have only produced only a few issues of, say, three or four stories in that time before pulling up stakes and moving on. There are several examples that may come to mind for you, as they did for myself--the teaming of Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner on Doctor Strange... Roy Thomas and John Buscema on Fantastic Four... Roy Thomas and Neal Adams on X-Men... David Kraft and Keith Giffen on The Defenders... creative pairs whose work shone noticeably and then disappeared for good, just when it seemed critical acclaim of their work was spreading. One other such teaming which must be mentioned in this grouping took place during 1980-81, a period which brought us nine months of the work of writer Roger Stern and artist/co-plotter John Byrne on the Captain America title--nine months that translated to a mere nine issues and just seven stories from this team, yet nonetheless became remembered as a high point for the book.

You'll find several of those stories already covered in the PPC--but around midpoint into the Stern/Byrne run came a two-part story featuring two classic villains who some might consider also-rans, but whose scheme came close to threatening the lives of ten million people. Fortunately, both of these men were willing to deal with a special envoy of the district attorney, who at their request would deliver the ransom they'd demanded--though their interpretation of "deal with" carried more deadly implications for the man in question.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Artistry of John Severin

"I was kind of thrilled when John Severin inked me, because I liked his work for EC comics and he was one of my idols." - Herb Trimpe

A distinguished artist whose career spanned nearly sixty years, John Severin's work also spanned genres: whether it was horror, or comics, or satire, or westerns, or sword and sorcery, or war, his style added eye-catching detail and a sense of realism to the images he would depict. Most of the work I've seen from Severin came from his assignments as a finisher, rather than pencilling; I'd even go so far as to state that it wouldn't be surprising to discover how many of us are able to identify his inking at a glance. That said, he proved to be capable of handling the dual roles of penciller and inker in a good number of publications and stories, while all the while carving out a fruitful and varied career for himself--well-regarded by his peers and by the industry as a whole.

Severin passed away at 90 in early 2012 (followed 6½ years later by his sister, Marie, also a giant in the industry). As much for those of you who haven't had a great deal of exposure to his work as for those who have had that privilege and might wish to simply reminisce, following is a brief collection of panels which hopefully offer a fair sampling of his talent. (Though you'll find it fairly obvious just which body of work stands out for me the most!)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"In The Jaws Of The Serpent!"

In what would be their third foray into inciting racial violence in the United States, the Sons of the Serpent, as we've already seen in the first two parts of a four-part story, have reorganized and begun launching attacks in New York City designed to stoke fear in their foreign-born and non-white victims and hopefully gain the attention of those like-minded white Americans supportive of their cause. Yet they've also drawn the attention of the dynamic Defenders (and their guest, the Avenger known as Yellowjacket), thanks to both the Valkyrie and Nighthawk having become involved with two individuals who have had exposure to the Sons' activities: Elena, a young woman forced to vacate a building in Manhattan's lower east side due to deplorable conditions ignored by her landlord, Harold Holliman... and Holliman himself, a real estate tycoon of little to no conscience who wishes to build a high-rise on the site and has courted fellow tycoon Kyle Richmond (Nighthawk) as a potential investor. Richmond never warmed up to Holliman or his proposal, his instincts toward the man having apparently been justified when Holliman is blamed (albeit cleared) in the firebombing which later destroyed Elena's building and resulted in loss of life, but whose name is later floated as the possible power behind the Sons of the Serpent.

As for the Defenders, they have been identified by the Sons as traitors to their race and captured, to soon face public execution. And now, apparently helpless, they're forced to listen as the Sons proudly explain their role in the purging of their country of those they consider impure--an explanation that includes their justification for mass murder.

It's a scenario that carries apocalyptic overtones, if only domestically--a plan that would require widespread outreach and public support for the Sons' goals to reach fruition, which bespeaks a level of sophistication and resources that would indicate the Sons have already marshaled considerable support and swelled their ranks from all corners of the country. Can the Defenders hope to stop such an organized and committed group, even if they somehow succeed in shutting them down locally? For that matter, can they escape their fate at present?

Well, we did say that they were apparently helpless...

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Fangs Of The Racist

"As the first serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden, so shall we drive from this land the unfit, the foreign-born, the inferior."

At first glance, the credo of the Sons of the Serpent might seem counter-productive to their goal of purging non-white, non-indigenous persons and ethnic groups from America; after all, even people of like mind might think twice about siding with an organization which appears to take pride in the means by which two white people were driven from paradise forever. But the group we're talking about has little to do with logic, or reason--or, it perhaps goes without saying, humanity.

Looking back at the appearances of the Sons of the Serpent and those who have opposed them, it might be difficult to see even a clearly racist organization such as themselves drawing the involvement of a super-team such as the Avengers, who have gone up against them twice; were it not for the fact that the Sons adopted flamboyant, menacing costumes and had a S.H.I.E.L.D. dossier, they might have been a group better suited to the F.B.I. to investigate and build a case against.  And if the involvement of costumed heroes somehow were warranted, individuals such as Daredevil and/or the Black Panther could be dealt in to make for an intriguing and perhaps even more gripping story than a cry of "Avengers Assemble!" might provide.

That said, it's been surprising how writers Stan Lee and Roy Thomas were able to craft Avengers tales which directly involved the Sons and spanned more than one issue. Both stories were a means to an end, in that each came down to a figurehead that could be unveiled and toppled and thus be quickly and neatly wrapped up--though frankly the Sons' cause wasn't helped by adopting a snake motif and having their organization fronted by their spokesperson, the "Serpent Supreme," thus conveying the impression that it was his agenda that he sought support for rather than pushing a message to reflect that the Sons as a whole were tapping into the pulse of all Americans.  Instead, the Sons crafted a deception within a deception, which could only make their organization appear even more insidious.

Yet would the Avengers have been as effective against an organization that wasn't so blatant in its operations? We've seen how the team became split right down the middle when it came to choosing between tracking down the movements of the criminal cartel, Zodiac, vs. helping a Native American seeking justice against a white, ruthless businessman trying to force his people to vacate their lands. Would the team have even turned their attention to the Sons if that group's activities didn't involve one of their own, as was the case in each of their dealings with that group as well as with Red Wolf? With the exception of giving assistance to the Panther... er, the Leopard following his disappearance in Rudyarda, a white supremacist stronghold, the Fantastic Four's adventures seldom pivoted to stories on race--preferring to make their statement on the subject by analogy (e.g., the Monster of the Lost Lagoon, the Mole Man, Omega, et al.)--the X-Men taking a similar tack with their focus on the persecution of and bigotry against mutants.

You would think, then, that the non-team known as the Defenders would have even less reason to cross paths with the Sons, since the amount of interaction and exposure involved would represent a sharp turn toward the very things they seek to avoid: television cameras... news coverage... large crowds... to say nothing of the paper trail of culpability leading back to one Defender in particular (though we'll get to that in due time). Yet writer Steve Gerber manages to craft a well-structured and at times riveting four-part story* which makes folding the Defenders into the Sons' race war believable--all the more so since it will lead to the involvement of not just one but two of their members on a personal level.

*It seemed negligent not to emphasize that; one can grow very fatigued with that much Sons of the Serpent exposure if the material isn't handled carefully.

The first of those we come to immediately--the Valkyrie, who responds to a terrified cry and is witness to a sight more horrific than any she has beheld in the company of her comrades.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Gods Must Be Crazy

We've come to the end of our roundup of the last of Marvel's large-format books from November of 1971 to be reviewed at the PPC--and of all of Marvel's characters who would be suited to such a format, few would arguably be more visually impressive than this gentle, inoffensive green behemoth who evokes serenity and happiness wherever he sets foot.

And if you're buying that malarkey, I have a gamma bomb I'd like to sell you.
All right, it's made of legos, but still.

With a large page count to accommodate, artists Herb Trimpe and John Severin (the definitive penciller/inker team for the incredible Hulk, in my humble opinion) more than fulfill their obligation in this issue, covering enough bases to give a new Hulk reader a decent amount of background on the character while also demonstrating what makes the Hulk so unique in Marvel's stable. Yet Hulk #145 isn't all smooth sailing, inserting as it does a story within a story of the Hulk being conscripted into appearing in, of all things, a Hollywood film being shot in the Sahara Desert. There's nothing new about a Hulk tale being a little offbeat on occasion; try picturing the Hulk being fawned over and holding his temper while attending a party thrown by the cream of Manhattan society, for instance. Yet you may find that "Godspawn," this issue's central story, is virtually dealt into everything else that's taking place, rather than the other way around--which may be intentional on the part of first-time Hulk scripter Len Wein, given how it only offers a glimpse of itself before disappearing for nearly half the issue.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

For Daredevil Comes... Death!

Welcome to the middle of a week-long roundup of those remaining large-format books from late 1971 which the PPC has yet to cover in depth. Starting us off this week was a look at the 34-page Sub-Mariner story, scripted by Gerry Conway and pencilled by Gene Colan, that sees Namor continuing his search for both his human father who is reported to still be alive, and the woman who murdered his bride--in that order, which appears to be proof that even former monarchs can use some help in getting their priorities straight.

But now, we come to Daredevil #81, also by Conway and Colan, which finds our Man Without Fear in dire straits following a battle with his nemesis, the Owl, after being abandoned in a damaged helicopter high in the sky. What doesn't stay up, must come down, of course--and from the looks of the issue's cover as well as its splash page, Daredevil has plummeted way, way down, along with the 'copter wreckage. But it appears that help is on the way.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Apostle Of The Aged!

With both Daredevil and Sub-Mariner hitting the spinner racks in November of 1971--the month that Marvel briefly increased both the size and pricing of a number of their issues before shifting them all back to a regular-sized format the following month--you might think that artist Gene Colan, who pencilled both titles, would be a little frazzled at having to gear up and turn in nearly twice the page count of work for each of those issues that month. Fortunately, Colan caught a break, with the Daredevil story amounting to just nineteen pages while the rest of the issue was supplemented with a Thing/Human Torch reprint from a Strange Tales story from mid-1965--which left Colan free to focus on the additional fourteen pages for Sub-Mariner, his first story in Namor's solo series to begin what would be a seven-issue run.

Yet with the character of Namor floundering a bit following the departure of writer Roy Thomas from the book, it was hard to imagine a 34-page story would amount to much, even with Colan's return to a character he was by this time well familiar with. Thus far, the only direction for Namor was that which Thomas had set him on at the closing of his final scripted issue of Sub-Mariner--his search for his human father, though already sidetracked by tepid encounters with a mutant named Turalla (wrapping up a two-part crossover begun in Daredevil) followed by a rather bizarre mortal foe by the name of, I kid you not, "Aunt Serr," a threat which somehow rated a two-part tale. But while "Mindquake!" virtually spins its wheels and does fairly little except to tie up a loose end from the Turalla story, it nevertheless continues showing us a Sub-Mariner who no longer is buffered by his Atlantean subjects and saddled with a responsibility for his former kingdom's safety and future. Arguably, that may be its only selling point--aside from the issue's extra 14 pages, for which the reader has been assured by the announcement of this new format is quite a bargain.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Today's Pinch Hitter: The Monstroid!

How surprising that in all this time we've seen so little of the Monstroid, an alien robot so named by the Puppet Master when he had the good fortune of finding and taking control of it after its ship had crashed outside of his cabin. An experimental construct created by the Skrulls to use as a scout during the Kree-Skrull War, Ballox (his Skrull designation) appeared in a 1972 Marvel Team-Up story and was subsequently rendered inactive when its link to the Puppet Master was severed by the Vision; but its debut proved that it could be useful in any number of stories where a villain needed a bruiser to do their bidding. (Off the top of my head, seeing the Wizard draft it as part of a new Frightful Four lineup was a story waiting to happen.)

Yet the Monstroid's final active appearance in a Marvel comic (to my knowledge) occurred nearly three years after the Team-Up story--only this time it didn't face Spider-Man in battle, but the living weapon of K'un Lun. (Who, if he could, would probably be down with having Luke Cage as his wingman right about now.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Call Him... Genesis!

It's probably news to you (as it certainly was to myself) that, according to Doctor Strange writer Steve Englehart*, all mystic energy in the universe is finite, and must be shared among all who understand its use; ergo, the more magicians there are in a certain time period, the less mystical energy one could claim and wield. In reading stories featuring Strange, I had been of the notion that it was the more learned sorcerer who possessed more might, in practice if not on paper. Yet in a previous Englehart story, it always seemed odd to me that the Ancient One, upon his passing, could "bequeath" his mystic powers to his disciple, Dr. Strange, as if they were physical assets one could arrange to transfer upon death.  At the time, I regarded that as the Ancient One passing on his accumulated mystic knowledge to Strange (along the lines of the often-quoted passage attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, "knowledge is power"), which seemed to make the most sense considering that the Ancient One had little power to spare by the time he met his maker. Otherwise, we're left to assume that the Ancient One was keeping all of his power that he'd accumulated over the centuries tucked away in a vault back in his Himalayan temple, mystically triggered for release to Strange at the time of his death.

*Though if an earlier Doctor Strange writer actually established this, do chime in and bring it to my attention.

Nevertheless, Englehart's unofficial creed of mystic energy ties in with--or, rather, appears designed to accommodate--the two-part 1974 story that took place in Marvel Premiere which involves Sise-Neg, a sorcerer who has travelled into the past from the 31st century. In his scheme, Sise-Neg means to take control of all available mystic energy from selected eras as he goes further back in time, so that, when he at last reaches the dawn of creation, all mystic energy in existence will be in his exclusive possession, making him all-powerful and capable of reshaping to his liking all that is to come. But two other sorcerers are along for the ride: Baron Mordo, who hopes to win Sise-Neg's trust and thus assure himself of favorable status in the universe born of Sise-Neg's will... and Dr. Strange, who began this journey with the intent of stopping Mordo from taking such action himself but must now also take the unexpected danger from Sise-Neg into account.

Part 1 of this story is further evidence of Dr. Strange being well on track to returning as a viable character in the Marvel stable, as Englehart and artist Frank Brunner continue to inject new life into the mystic master with engaging stories featuring excellent characterization and (you'll excuse the term) spellbound artwork. And now, as we continue to Part 2, Sise-Neg proceeds on the final leg of his journey backward through time, with Strange and Mordo virtually perched on each shoulder as a kind of angel/devil pairing--one acting as Sise-Neg's conscience and imploring him to see the value of human life, the other self-serving and urging him to follow his instincts in treating humanity with contempt. With each stop on that journey, Sise-Neg materializes in order to take possession of whatever mystical energy at that point in time attracts his attention--and in so doing, provides both Mordo and Strange with an opportunity to win his trust, and affect his choices.

The particular time period which the story first deals with is presumably the late 5th century, specifically in what was then Britain, as elements of King Arthur's reign are encountered--with Merlin's power being the likely source of Sise-Neg's interest. Unfortunately, Mordo appears well-versed in the legends of Camelot--and he uses the tragedy of its principal residents as fodder for strengthening his position with Sise-Neg.

Strike One for Strange--and as he rightly notes, he can't afford to keep giving Mordo opportunities to sway a sorcerer who is on track to becoming a deity.

Monday, October 7, 2019

This Sorcerer, Supreme!

Following the defeat of the prehistoric horror known as Shuma-Gorath, and the loss of his teacher, the Ancient One, Dr. Strange formally succeeded his mentor by ascending to the position of Earth's "Sorcerer Supreme," a title never before used in reference to the Ancient One but which would be virtually written in stone from that point on and applied often in future Doctor Strange stories, with Strange now the preeminent sorcerer on Earth.  The end of the Shuma-Gorath saga capped a successful return from near-oblivion in comics for the character, which a previous appearance in Marvel Feature (alongside the Defenders) helped to secure.

Subsequent to getting his bearings after the Ancient One's passing and coming to terms with his new role, Strange went on to make a notable if ill-fated attempt to mend fences with Baron Mordo, his enemy almost from Day One of his arrival at the Ancient One's Himalayan temple where he'd once hoped to find the help he needed to regain the life he'd lived before a car accident robbed him of the use of his surgeon's hands. Only now, Mordo was nowhere to be found at his castle in Transylvania--while Strange fell victim to Lilia, a gypsy woman who sought to use him to get her past the defenses of Castle Mordo and reclaim a book which the wily Mordo obtained from her through duplicity. Strange was eventually released from his enslavement to Lilia--but upon closer examination of her book, which was written by the 18th century sorcerer known as Cagliostro, he discovered that Mordo had ventured into time itself in order to change the past and thereby assure his own ascendance over Strange's new stature.

And so Strange immediately sets out to pursue his old foe through time. But what awaits them both is someone neither he nor Mordo are expecting to encounter: another mystic, who has his own reason for traveling backward in time, and his own future to reshape.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Test At Your Own Risk

Over time, the limits of the incredible Hulk's power, like those of Wolverine's healing factor, have reached such levels that the notion no longer seems to apply. So with that in mind, it might be interesting to briefly look back and recall the instances where the Hulk's strength was still being charted, though the surprising aspect turned out to be that our pioneers in those instances were villains--who, granted, were serving their own ends more than science, but were also doing so at considerable risk to themselves.

No doubt the Leader was eager to explore the makeup of the Hulk, given that he, himself, was also affected by a freak gamma-ray explosion. But even the enhanced mind of the Leader was daunted by the sheer power of the Hulk.

The standards we've seen here--high voltage, temperature extremes, even gas--weren't always adhered to over the years, nor could they have been since there were so many stories that called for the Hulk's capture. But as the Leader notes, perhaps we can attribute that to his lab having limited resources to sufficiently conduct a thorough testing. A later joint army/scientific venture designed to capture and contain the Hulk, for instance, had better luck with subduing him with high voltage:

(That's what you get for building your lab in the middle of the desert, Leader.)

Then there was the Gremlin, whose facility in Siberia was provided by the Russin government and spared no expense to give this brilliant prodigy any resources he needed to facilitate his weapons research. In the Hulk's case, he sought to adapt the Hulk's strength and durability to his armored "super-trooper" forces, which of course called for rigorous testing.

In some cases, it's clear that the Gremlin was covering ground that the Leader had already touched on--though since both their bases were isolated as well as being separated by great distance, that's hardly surprising. What was unusual here is the premise that gas treatments would in effect ensure the Hulk's cooperation, which doesn't really add up. Why should he? In the Leader's case, the Hulk, partially in control of by Banner, was obliged to repay the Leader for surgically removing a bullet lodged in his brain--but the Hulk was a captive of the Gremlin, pure and simple.

Though circumstances would eventually deprive the Gremlin of even a cooperative Hulk.

Yet it was our old friend the Mandarin who would most effectively put the Hulk through his paces in order to receive a thorough demonstration of the Hulk's power and abilities--an easy thing to arrange, if you're willing to come under attack!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Revenge, Times Two!

The Mandarin is out for revenge against the Hulk! To wit:

But after his failure to use the Hulk to ignite worldwide nuclear war, the Mandarin is looking for an ally against the green behemoth, which is where the Sandman comes in--a formidable super-villain who has recently recovered from his defeat at the hands of the Fantastic Four after his alliance with Blastaar didn't pan out as he'd hoped. Yet Blastaar, though a loose cannon, impressed the Sandman enough to make him want to team up with him again--so much so that he's planning to hijack the Air Force's new space-warp ship* so that he can make contact with Blastaar in the Negative Zone. (Either the Sandman is shooting in the dark in hoping that this new ship can somehow access the Negative Zone**, or we aren't giving those Air Force engineers enough credit.)

*Breakthroughs in technology in 1969 included the first Concorde test flight; the successful Apollo 11 moon landing; the first quartz watch; the first automatic teller machine; the development of UNIX; the invention of the microprocessor; and, it seems, the first space-warp ship.

**Is there actually a "NEGATIVE ZONE" setting on the control console?

To initiate his plan, the Sandman stumbles across someone he thinks will make the perfect distraction to occupy the soldiers on the missile base where the ship is stored, so that he can make his heist. He only needs to be convinced to cooperate--villain-style.

Having never faced the Hulk, the Sandman's confidence in his own might to prevail against him is perhaps understandable at this point. Still, his goal here is to coerce the Hulk into helping him get his sandy hands on that ship--and manipulating the Hulk into falling for an act is apparently as easy as it ever was to pull off.

(It'll no doubt be news to Betty Brant that the Hulk has a thing for her.)

The Sandman's plan works like a charm, as he meets only minimal resistance in taking the ship. But a complication arises when he makes the mistake of trying to ram the car that Betty Ross is driving--and since Betty Brant has never been any competition for Betty Ross in the Hulk's mind, the Sandman quickly finds that his ally has become his enemy.

In the meantime, the space-warp ship has become "the missile" off-panel, which would at least explain why something developed by the Air Force is being stored at an Army missile base. On the other hand, it's now anyone's guess why the Sandman would want to steal a missile, which wouldn't help him vis-à-vis Blastaar or the Negative Zone.

As for the battle, we have to give the Sandman props for maintaining his cool throughout this fight, having confidence in his invincibility and believing all the while that he'll eventually crush the Hulk. What's not quite registering with him is that the Hulk feels the same about him.

Which brings us full circle, as we now return to the Mandarin--and the ally he'll make use of to attain his own goal.