Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Beware The Return of... Mordo! (Or not.)

Even though I recall my first Dr. Strange story, it would be awhile before I would flip through the character's debut appearance in 1963. As with other Marvel characters that I became exposed to, I had to work my way backwards, piecemeal, in order to become more familiar with Strange, steadily closing in on learning more about the man who was originally known as the Master of Black Magic, and, as a result, finding myself drawn more (at least in the beginning) to the less rigid, more human Stephen Strange who later emerged in other stories besides his own. That's not to say I didn't really care for Strange during his time as the Ancient One's disciple; in fact I find the dichotomy between the two versions of Strange interesting, albeit likely not intended to be scrutinized too closely. I wonder if Stephen Strange would even recognize himself in his more exotic, stern appearance and manner back in the day.

By the time we first meet Strange in print, he'd been in that role for some time, establishing a reputation as a mystic master in his own right and having made his fair share of enemies in the process. Primary among those, Baron Mordo, was someone I first read of in Strange's origin story, a man who surreptitiously plotted against the Ancient One and paid a price for it by being rejected as his successor in favor of Strange. But to readers of Strange Tales in August of 1963, their first exposure to Mordo was just after Strange was introduced in the comic and had successfully prevailed in his first adventure. All we know of Mordo at that point is that he and Strange were once pupils of the Ancient One and have since become rivals (in Mordo's eyes) for "the secrets of black magic"--thus making Mordo the perfect arch-enemy, having been attacking both Strange and the Ancient One openly. And in his latest scheme, he seeks to attain by force what he could not accomplish through subterfuge.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Enter: The Master Of Black Magic!

When it comes to comic book stories, less can be so much more--and I know of no finer example of that time-tested idiom than a story premiering in mid-1963 which featured the first appearance of the Master of the Mystic Arts Black Magic, Dr. Strange, a tale which totaled a mere five pages but even in its simplicity managed not only to provide the reader with the basic elements of this intriguing new character's background but to also wrap those elements within a tidy yet satisfying first adventure. Written by Stan Lee with art by Steve Ditko, Strange made his debut as a backup feature in (what else?) Strange Tales, sporting a virtual marquee of his own.

The copy is quite correct (and perhaps intentional) in mentioning that the feature premieres quietly and without Marvel's usual cover fanfare; in fact, it would take seven issues (equating to seven months, which in a way underscores the point) before Strange would receive even a mention on the title's cover, as if Lee were walking on tiptoes with this character:

In his extensive section on Dr. Strange in Origins Of Marvel Comics, Lee makes no mention of his reticence in promoting the character--only that he and Ditko were "cautiously feeling [their] way" with him in terms of fleshing out the framework of his world and the extent of his abilities; yet it's really only a minor observation on my part, a matter of curiosity which some of the more learned among you may be able to shed some light on. In no way does it (nor should it) impact on what turns out to be a very nicely structured introduction to an intriguing character who, as the story's final panel announces, will be our guide to the mystic world which represents uncharted territory for those who until now have focused their efforts on super-heroes rooted in reality.

And as we'll see, even those in the real world have need for such a man.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Holy Markup, Batman

What in the...?

"Facsimile" editions? Collectible reprints?

Is this some kind of joke?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Final Fate Of The Andromeda!

When we left the hapless crew of the Andromeda, a space vessel dedicated to hunting and destroying the energy being known as Klaatu, it frankly looked like its hunting days were over. Mortally wounded by the laser-line "harpoon" of its Captain, Cybor, as well as that of its resident harpoonist, Xeron, the Star-Slayer, Klaatu was last seen helplessly caught in our sun's gravity--along with Cybor himself, whose stalk-boat was struck by the dying behemoth, flinging the captain onto his prey's back to share Klaatu's death plunge into the star. That fate would have also been shared by the occupants of the second stalk-boat, had Xeron not severed his own line from Klaatu--but they seemed equally doomed, trapped in orbit around the sun, their moments numbered by the short time remaining to their boat's air-shield.

As for the Andromeda, she was left aimlessly drifting through space, perhaps without a soul left aboard.

That is, until fourteen years later (our time), when she and all hands were virtually resurrected by writer Bill Mantlo. And where the Andromeda sails, can Klaatu be far from its sights?

To understand the how and the why of what goes on here, we first must join the other behemoth who was present in the original story--the incredible Hulk, who at this point in time had been exiled by Dr. Strange to the "Crossroads," an interdimensional nexus where the Hulk, now a creature of pure rage with no trace whatsoever of Bruce Banner's influence, could choose from an infinite number of worlds to resettle on and hopefully find the peace that he craved. At his side is a sympathetic, alien being, the Puffball Collective, which has been attempting to communicate with its sole companion in an effort to enlist the Hulk's power in escaping the Crossroads; but with the startling appearance of the mammoth being which at one time had seemed on a course toward certain destruction, their salvation may be close at hand.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Identity Crisis!

A running mystery during the years of 1964-66 in the Amazing Spider-Man book was: Who is the Green Goblin? Always donning or discarding his fright mask in shadow or standing behind an object that occluded his face, the Goblin's identity (and the nature of the Goblin himself) appeared to be a point of disagreement between writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko--with Lee reportedly feeling that the character should turn out to be someone that readers would know, in order to take advantage of the dramatic moment when his face was finally revealed; while Ditko is credited for changing Lee's original interpretation of the Goblin from that of a mythical demon to a costumed human villain.

In hindsight, of course, we know that the Goblin was chemical industrialist Norman Osborn; but, back in the day, while his son Harry had become a mainstay among Peter Parker's high school ensemble of characters, Osborn wouldn't be introduced until two issues before Ditko's departure. In terms of the Goblin's secret, that introduction turned out to be timely, indeed--for it was when artist John Romita Sr. replaced Ditko on the book that readers would at last discover the identity of the figure who had been kept under wraps for twenty-five issues. And from the looks of things, there was more than one identity that would be revealed for all to see!

We'd already been made aware of Osborn's feelings toward Spider-Man--feelings also cloaked in mystery, with Osborn becoming concerned that the wall-crawler was a danger to his plans and must be dealt with. But in what would be the character's last shrouded appearance, it's the Goblin who resolves to deal with Spider-Man once and for all, and with a twist that's bound to bring no small amount of worry and fear to the life of Peter Parker.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Wizard Walks Among Us!

Following writer Steve Englehart's departure from Doctor Strange, how curious it was to experience the revolving door of writers and artists which shuffled creative talent in an apparent effort to keep the book afloat while hopefully at some point landing on the right mix that would stabilize and continue providing direction for the character (or at least that was how things seemed from a reader's perspective). Eventually, that stability would materialize when Roger Stern took the writing reins of the book in mid-1981--but until then, it was interesting to open an issue and see just what was thrown together in terms of a coherent plot, as well as which writer and/or artist(s) were brought on board for who knows how long a stay.

Consecutively by issue, we were greeted with:
(listed in order of writer/artist(s))
  • Marv Wolfman/Alfredo Alcala
  • Roy Thomas/Dan Adkins (reprinting Doctor Strange #169, though you wouldn't know it by the cover that didn't get that memo)
  • Marv Wolfman/Rudy Nebres
  • Marv Wolfman/Jim Starlin, Rudy Nebres
  • Jim Starlin/Al Milgrom, Rudy Nebres (a nice do-si-do from the previous issue by Starlin)
  • Jim Starlin/Al Milgrom, Pablo Marcos
  • Jim Starlin/Jim Starlin (layouts), Rudy Nebres
  • Roger Stern/Tom Sutton, Ernie Chan (3 consecutive issues)
  • Roger Stern/Tom Sutton
  • Roger Stern/Ricardo Villamonte, Tom Sutton
  • Roger Stern/Alan Kupperberg, Rudy Nebres
  • Ralph Macchio (continuing Stern's plot)/Tom Sutton, Rudy Nebres
  • Ralph Macchio/Tom Sutton, Craig Russell
  • Ralph Macchio/Tom Sutton, Pablo Marcos
  • Ralph Macchio/Gene Colan, Dan Green

In addition, we saw shuffling among the letterers and colorists (Kupperberg and Alcala, for instance, filling in as letterers, the latter even lettering an issue which featured his art). Succinctly put, for a whopping nineteen issues, Doctor Strange was, to quote a certain Mrs. Gump, like a box of chocolates--you never knew what you were going to get. Doubtless, some of you were partial to some of these talents hopefully putting down roots on the book; I was impressed by Sutton's work with the character, though I felt the Starlin/Nebres art team was regrettably too brief. Many have also gone on record praising the work of Nebres, who does excellent solo work--while Stern's footprint was obviously enough to interest him and/or the book's editors (Jo Duffy and Al Milgrom, either separately or together) in a more prolonged run.

But before Stern would return, this time as the book's regular scripter, writer Chris Claremont would helm eight issues of Doctor Strange with artists Gene Colan and Dan Green, a fit which might have understandably shown promise given Claremont's penchant for character development. Yet his work was somewhat hampered by his decision to recycle Englehart's exploration of Strange's lack of self-confidence, a storyline which Englehart had already successfully resolved and put to bed--nor were Claremont's adversaries for Strange (the Shadowqueen... Azrael, a pawn of Mordo... a crossover with the Man-Thing... a pair of Indian demons) particularly engrossing.

Oddly enough, however, Claremont's farewell issue proved to be fairly interesting, offering what would turn out to be a one-two punch on his part featuring the return of the N'Garai (the second punch being delivered just a month later in an Uncanny X-Men story) as well as some exploration of Clea's status as Strange's disciple. But the issue's opening page reveals another kind of adversary whom Strange must contend with--an opportunist who could discover the danger of digging too deeply into the background of a man who considers his vocation and privacy sacrosanct.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Give it up for... Rick Jones, Folk Legend!

Five bucks buys you a chance to solve this

Marvel Trivia Question

How and when did Rick Jones become an overnight singing sensation?

Friday, November 8, 2019

All The News That's Fit To Disclose

Thanks to my investment advisor, who's known for some time of my fixation on comics, I've indulged in some fascinating reading lately on Marvel's annual reports from the 1990s--a topic which normally wouldn't elicit much interest from the average comic book reader, considering that annual reports generally make for pretty dry reading. What makes the subject a little bit different in this instance is that, with the company's IPO in mid-1991 which made 40% of its stock available for public trading, its annual reports to its new shareholders were presented in (what else?) comic book format, with all the facts and figures cleverly folded into a fully-produced story.

Yet the true draw here is that these reports, begun when Marvel Entertainment Group had every reason to believe the company's outlook was rosy, chart decisions, acquisitions, divestments, and various other factors which would eventually lead to Marvel filing for bankruptcy at the end of 1996--though you'd never know that was on the horizon from the positive spin of the tale featured in its (to my knowledge) final report from 1995, where not even a hard news man like J. Jonah Jameson is interested in digging for the real story.

The plot of the story by Gary Fishman is easy reading: Essentially, the Impossible Man--all for the sake of fun, of course--has stolen the Bugle's pages on the Report, leaving it up to Spider-Man and a number of other heroes to recover them in time to meet Jameson's deadline.

For a more unvarnished look at Marvel's financial straits during the '90s, I'd recommend two sources: First, the Wikipedia entry* on the subject, which very briefly breaks things down by year--and then, for a more investigative approach, a well-written article** from 1998 in The New York Times which does an excellent job of bringing to light everything and everyone that was involved. What I found particularly interesting in the article was the importance placed on speculators, whose penchant for buying multiple copies of a single issue and hanging onto them on the assumption that they would be worth far more than their cover price over time gave Marvel a false sense of how many consumers were actually fueling the market. (Which makes me strictly bush league in that regard--on occasion I'd buy an extra copy, maybe two, of an issue I thought likely to increase in value substantially, but the article speaks of people who would buy twenty copies of issues across the board, many of whom would become retailers in their own right.)

*Marvel Entertainment: Public offering and acquisition; Bankruptcy and Marvel Studios
**Adam Bryant, "Pow! The Punches That Left Marvel Reeling" - May 24, 1998

I haven't delved into the pages of the '91-'94 reports, but I found some of the names that popped up in the company's Board of Directors to be surprising:

Wrapping up the story was a page which offered a look at plans for increasing its exposure in other venues--most notably its "Marvel Mania" themed restaurants which fared poorly, and a Marvel Universe section at Universal's Orlando theme park (which ended up recycling the Marvel Mania concept and toning down the Marvel "universe" to a simple theme store.

On a closing note, and in the interest of full disclosure, my advisor treated me to not just one but two copies of the '95 report--which leads me to believe he knows more about being a speculator than he's willing to let on.

Covers from the 1991-94 Annual Reports.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Wrath Of The World Breaker!

Having seen the events which led up to the 2007-08 series, World War Hulk, we know that Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Stephen Strange, and Blackagar Boltagon (that still sounds silly) are going to be made to answer for their actions toward the Hulk and, by extension, Bruce Banner--and though we'll discover that those actions don't amount to the level of transgressions that the Hulk intends to hold them accountable for, our four "heroes," in addition to a number of others as well as a sizable part of New York City, will suffer considerably by the time his rage and this series have run their course.

Which makes this more "NYC War Hulk" than what the title implies, since confining your attack to one city doesn't engulf an entire planet in a war. Still, when the Hulk emerges from an alien ship dangling his first victim, every costumed figure worth his salt knows that the Hulk's threat to extend his attack to the rest of the world must be taken seriously.  (Or so the Hulk would have them believe, should his demands not be met.)

The Hulk's announcement also serves to offer readers who passed on the "Planet Hulk" storyline (such as myself) a capsulized glance at the tragic events of that story while boiling down the Hulk's grievance against his four targets in a nutshell--which seems an effective way to handle a five-issue, 200+ page series in a single PPC post (hey, I'm not at war with the Hulk!) while offering a look at the work comprising this ambitious project.

As you might guess, the story's first order of business is to feebly tie the hands of the one person who could end this conflict with a single incantation.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Prelude To... War!

No doubt practically anyone who was a regular reader of Incredible Hulk a few years after the turn of the century can recite the underlying reasons which became the foundation for the hostilities encompassing the 2007-08 series known as World War Hulk. Following a plan executed by Reed Richards, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, and Iron Man which traps the Hulk in a space shuttle and sends him to another world, thereby removing the threat of the Hulk forever, the shuttle's later explosion on the planet where the Hulk made a new life for himself incinerates all that he had accomplished for himself, including the casualties of his wife and newly-conceived child; and so, in a fit of revenge, he returns to Earth to take out his rage on those he holds responsible for his pain and his losses.

But while I was putting together this train of thought, it occurred to me that I was a little fuzzy on some of the details. For instance, by this point the Hulk had been rampaging on the Earth for (by our standards) over thirty years--surely Earth's heroes had seen more than enough incidents of endangerment and destruction on the Hulk's part to justify throwing up their hands and saying "enough is enough" well before now. But let's say for the sake of discussion that it took them awhile to finally reach their limit on the Hulk--hadn't Strange's gambit to exile the Hulk to a dimensional "crossroads" already effectively attempted this sort of solution, and failed?

And so I started to work my way back in order to have a more complete picture of what led up to taking this step, in the assumption that the whole thing wasn't simply fast-tracked to launch the WWH event and begin cashing in on not only the main title but all the crossovers. It turns out that I'm both right and wrong in that notion: not fast-tracked in the sense that A was put in place to lead to B and then to C in a very short amount of time, but rather those pieces being restricted to the stories leading up to the Hulk's exile itself. In the meantime, we can presume that production had already begun on the WWH books and the separate titles that conflict affected, thus allowing time for the Hulk's "Planet Hulk" storyline to play out for a 12-month period from April 2006-07. At the end of that storyline--well, as NASA would put it, we have liftoff.

As for just what those pieces were, we can break them down as follows.

Fantastic Four #s 533-535
January-April, 2006

If we're looking for a catalyst for World War Hulk, here it is--starting with the Fantastic Four getting word of a gamma bomb explosion in Nevada, which interrupts a situation involving their children and necessitates the Thing and the Human Torch heading to investigate the Hulk on their own.

But the status of the Hulk turns out to be worse than expected, not only with the Hulk's startling difference in appearance but also because of the fact that his mental state is fragile at best.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Man Of The Kree... Man Of The Sea

While it's not exactly surprising to see unlikely pairings of Marvel characters--we only have to take a look at such combinations as the Champions, or the Defenders, or the Secret Defenders, or the Titans Three, or, for that matter, practically any issue of Marvel Team-Up--writer Roy Thomas, for whatever reason, felt that something would click with the pairing of a sea-born prince and a space-born alien. And with Thomas's track record, who are we to say him nay?

Thomas's first pairing of Captain Marvel and the Sub-Mariner took place in the former's nascent title in August of 1968, when Mar-vell, a spy stationed on our world, was beginning to have doubts about his mission among us. In his civilian guise as Dr. Walter Lawson, he learns of a rocket launch designed to release into space test tubes filled with deadly bacteria, in order to record their reactions to cosmic rays. (Which seems like we were just asking for trouble, doesn't it?) But Mar-vell's superior in orbit, Col. Yon-Rogg, diverts the rocket so that it crashes just outside New York Harbor--though that development in itself is cause for alarm, since the rocket is automatically primed to jettison the vials which will now be released into Earth's atmosphere, rather than into space as planned.

Nearby, the Sub-Mariner has arrived on site and is alerted to the situation and warned to stay away--but he's keen to take advantage of the opportunity to establish a link with the human race, by averting this disaster. As for Mar-vell, given his doubts about bringing harm to humans, you'd think he and Namor would be on the same page in this, wouldn't you--but Yon-Rogg's orders to him effectively set both of these men against one another.