Monday, August 10, 2020

Lo... The Leader!


 OR:  "Holy Crud!"


Given the longevity of the mentally mutated menace known as the Leader, and the fact that he's arguably become a staple of Marvel villainy, it's fair to wonder why the man has seldom been allowed to spread his wings beyond the confines of Incredible Hulk and initiate plans against other characters and super-groups. The R&D projects of Tony Stark or Reed Richards, for instance, would surely make for tempting targets; infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. would gain him access to any number of intelligence agencies and government resources; a takeover attempt of A.I.M. would not only yield a treasure trove of advanced weaponry and scientific research but could also set up a *ahem* head-to-head (and mind-to-mind) conflict with M.O.D.O.K. (so many acronyms!); and how about vying with the Wizard for control of the Frightful Four?

The point being that the Leader need not stay where he has for the most part, which has mainly been to bedevil the command of Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross and/or pursue a vendetta against the Hulk and Bruce Banner. And in that respect, the Leader is with us almost from the start, helping to inaugurate the Hulk in the character's second crack at a series of his own--or more accurately, a feature of his own, while sharing one half of the Tales To Astonish title with Giant-Man in separate stories. At first, the Leader is handled by artist Steve Ditko in much the same way as was the Green Goblin--a villain whose identity is kept under wraps for the time being, while conducting his affairs behind the scenes as the, well, leader of a spy ring with designs on effectively taking over the U.S. government.



The Chameleon, of course, is a natural operative for the Leader's network of spies--though he, too, fails in dealing with the Hulk. It's then that, unlike the slow reveal of Norman Osborn as the Goblin, Ditko and writer Stan Lee decide to pull back the curtain on the Leader without delay, at the point when he appears to be forsaking the spy business in favor of going all in with his powerful creation known as the Humanoid.






It's only when he sees the Hulk go up against the Humanoid, however, that the Leader decides to focus his efforts on learning more about the powerful brute, whom he considers to be a potentially dangerous enemy and suspects was created in the same way as himself--by exposure to gamma rays.




Whatever our impressions of the Leader thus far, it becomes apparent that his character has acted as a virtual shot in the arm to stories involving the Hulk, who had not yet been developed beyond the status of a raging behemoth who suddenly appears to attack the threat du jour and whose activities cast suspicion on Bruce Banner. Up until now, the so-far bland supporting characters of these stories have been Gen. Ross, who has orders to continue working with the brilliant Banner as he develops weapons-based technology for the government... Maj. Glenn Talbot, a security officer who believes the worst of Banner; Rick Jones, who's left Captain America and the Avengers to return and protect Banner as best he can... and Betty Ross, Banner's love interest (as well as Talbot's); but as the Leader's profile is raised, and his interests are shifted to getting his hands on whatever Banner happens to be working on, as well as becoming more obsessed with the Hulk as a possibly ally, he begins to receive prominent exposure on issue covers.



Yet for all that, it takes awhile for any characters in the stories to become aware of either the existence or even the name of the Leader--which, granted, is secrecy that any spy aspires to, though in this case that secrecy vanishes for no apparent reason. The moment comes when the Leader sets his eye on Banner's new Absorbatron, a device developed as a defense against nuclear attack and capable of absorbing the force of a nuclear explosion. (Perhaps an improvement on his earlier Project 34, a device which only went as far as shielding an entire city from enemy rockets or missiles through use of electromagnetic waves.) The Leader is successful in capturing the device, but as a bonus he also manages to capture the Hulk in the process--though it's Bruce Banner who awakens in the Leader's base and realizes who's nabbed him, despite neither himself nor the Hulk ever having knowledge of or exposure to anyone named "the Leader."



Ditto for Gen. Ross and Maj. Talbot, who are frantic to recover the Absorbatron but are convinced that it's Banner (in league with the Hulk) who has made off with it, no doubt to deliver to a foreign government. Yet as they close in on the Leader's hidden base, they're unaware that the Hulk has since escaped captivity and dealt with the Leader (and with the Absorbatron)--and so when they arrive, they only find the Hulk, who has been severely weakened by one of the Leader's weapons and succumbs to a soldier's gunfire (presumably while on the verge of changing back to Banner). In a subsequent search, however, Talbot and his men only find the fatally wounded Bruce Banner.





And as the mop-operation continued, we're left to assume that Banner's little S.O.S. made mention of the Leader--because now the villain's name is fully out in the open and being dropped by the troops, as if they've been aware they've been dealing with him all along.



Elsewhere, the Leader has attempted to mend fences with those who were expecting delivery of the Absorbatron, by promising them something of potentially greater value--a more powerful, monstrous Humanoid who would be subject to their control. But it becomes clear that the Leader instead means to sever ties with those he has been working with, and use his creation to seize power for himself. (And at a tidy profit, at that--one billion dollars in 1965 was nothing to sneeze at.)



But the Leader has underestimated the Army's arsenal, as Ross orders the deployment of their "Sunday punch" super-missile against the approaching Humanoid which renders it inoperative on impact. The unexpected development that results from the crisis, however, is that the Hulk agrees to serve the Leader, who has learned of the Watcher's "Ultimate Machine" and enlists the Hulk's aid in retrieving it--but his intention to assimilate the Machine's wealth of universal knowledge backfires, to deadly effect.




Posthumously, however, we discover sometime later that the Leader has been officially named via narrative as the Hulk's arch-villain when the police contact the Pentagon upon discovering his Humanoid creation in storage, which Ross rashly resolves to send against the Hulk--something the Humanoid, for its part, is totally on board with, except for the part about being under Ross's control.




Thus would begin a long association between Ross's command and the Leader, for better or worse (usually worse).
But... wouldn't we need a living Leader for that?

Say no more.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Surfer, The Stranger, and The Judgment!


With the world-devouring Galactus having devoured five of the Elders of the Universe in retaliation for their plot to end his existence, Galactus has charged his herald, Nova, to find and retrieve the Contemplator, the one remaining Elder to be dealt with--while also requesting that his former herald, the Silver Surfer, guide Nova to the Elder's likely location. It's a request the Surfer is obliged to honor, after first securing the oath of Galactus that his home world of Zenn-La will remain inviolate in regard to Galactus's need for sustenance.

Yet once the two depart the presence of Galactus, the Surfer suspects that there is a deeper, even extraordinary, reason Galactus wished to be alone--and so he invites Nova to join him in remaining to covertly witness what happens next: a meeting that neither of them (or, I dare say, any readers) had suspected would take place.



Scripted by Steve Englehart, this particular meeting, at Eternity's behest, will be considerably less grim and depressive than the conversation which took place between Galactus and the manifestation of Death, five years prior. Here, instead, Eternity offers a recap of events, with the intent of putting those events in the perspective of "the big picture," so to speak, as it relates to both Galactus and Eternity--and, in a way, to the Surfer.





"Every man and every woman is a star!" I confess to at times being mystified by Englehart's nonsensical asides when exploring the workings of a character--that is to say, since when did Galactus have such high regard (or any regard) for mortal beings? It certainly didn't give him any noticeable pause from destroying their homeworlds and leaving them as refugees (those who had the means to escape their world's end, that is).

Over a year and a half later, Englehart would script his final issue of the Silver Surfer series, having brought to an end the saga of the second Kree-Skrull War and turning the reins over to another writer and penciler. And to cap his run on the book, an incredible meeting again takes place--one which, in a way, takes its cue from a possible seed which Englehart planted in the earlier story where Eternity alludes to the Surfer gaining the notice of beings such as themselves. Here, it's the Surfer and the Stranger who confer, at first, with the Surfer hoping to learn more of how the Stranger bears the isolation he imposes on himself. Yet when the Stranger is not forthcoming and the situation becomes tense, a third party arrives to provide the Surfer with the answer he seeks--and much more.




Monday, August 3, 2020

When Lands The Conqueror!


In the brief history of the original Avengers lineup, surely one of the most memorable stories to this day remains the team's encounter with Kang the Conqueror, their persistent nemesis from the future who makes his first appearance in the book in September of 1964. Alone in a single ship, in an almost casual approach without regard for whatever measures might be taken to intercept him, Kang lands, disembarks, and announces that he has laid claim to our world and that the planet's governments had one day to surrender to him--a boast that the Under Secretary of Defense felt obliged to declare as foolhardy, for all the good it did him.



Apparently even the Deputy Secretary of Defense, much less the Secretary himself, couldn't be trifled with responding personally to an alien ship landing in Virginia which then turned an advancing tank brigade into so much scrap. Wouldn't you want someone on the scene empowered to make decisions as that kind of situation developed?

At any rate, it's not surprising who the defense department called in before the Under Secretary boarded his plane: the mighty Avengers, who, after arriving at Tony Stark's townhouse* and receiving a briefing on the situation, are witness to what Kang's heavily-armed vessel is capable of, as well as its sole, confident occupant.






*As evident from the Thunder God's words concerning "our" national security, how curious that writer Stan Lee gives Thor, an immortal who has no doubt seen the rise and fall of many Earth nations and governments, the posture of an American--perhaps due to the fact that, even though he's been to Asgard and acknowledges his heritage, Thor at this point in time still believes himself to be Donald Blake. Blake is still years off from the revelation that he was only a facade created by Odin, and whose existence began at the moment when he materialized as an adult on the campus of the State College of Medicine.

With the stage set for the Avengers' investigation of the threat, it seems the perfect time to unveil artist Jack Kirby's classic cover for this issue--no doubt a head-turner for anyone browsing the spinner rack, and one of Kirby's finest offerings that seemed made for those trademark selling captions which Marvel was known for. (But you be the judge: let's line it up with a captionless cover and see if just the story title is enough to sell it!)


No need to slouch so, Kang--you're the Conqueror, not the Cobra!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

War Between The Realms!


If you were Pluto, permanent custodian and virtual prisoner of the Grecian netherworld, it's not clear what inciting war between Olympus and Asgard would get you as far as freedom from your assigned station. We obviously know what it would get someone like Ares, the god of war, who's been known to stoke such fires in the past between those realms (while making sure Earth became collateral damage in the process)--so an alliance between Pluto and Ares seemed the likely next step for these two, in a scheme which appeared tailor-made to provoke conflict between two pantheons of gods which maintained no formal relations between each other and thus might be quick to jump to conclusions if provided evidence of an act of aggression.

For instance, say, the lord of Asgard, Odin, learning of Krista, an Asgardian girl kidnapped and held captive by both Pluto and the son of Zeus.


(With Ares making a convincing Hercules, if only in striking an arrogant pose.)


As for what Pluto gets from hatching such a scheme, it still remains to be seen. To continue connecting the dots, we know what Hercules gets (the real Hercules), when Thor learns of Krista's fate: a good trouncing by the god of thunder, after which Thor is convinced by Zeus that Hercules is innocent, and that it's Pluto who's deserving of his wrath.

You'd think Thor's first thought would be to get word to Odin that Hercules and Olympus are in the clear as far as any warmongering; instead, he and Hercules engage in a contest to determine who gets to face Pluto in battle, a course of action which Zeus feels obliged to step in and correct with a few words of what we mortals might call "common sense."



But neither Ares nor Pluto are content to watch their carefully laid plans wither on the vine--and both know that it would only take the death of Thor to trigger a war of the gods!


Monday, July 27, 2020

Countdown to Operation: Purge!


Having followed the trail through time of the cyborg known as Deathlok the Demolisher, who unwillingly vanished from the year 1990 to appear in our own time only to be rendered mindless and subsequently battle to his own destruction, what more is there to say about the character, after having met such a pointless end that for all intents and purposes swept what amounted to a loose end under the rug? Well, putting aside for a moment the efforts of artist Rich Buckler and writer Doug Moench in taking such care and effort to build this character from the ground up, there is still his apocalyptic world of the future to consider--just over a decade away from the point where he met his end at Project: Pegasus, a date on the calendar that can't be as easily dismissed. And so we turn now to the year 1983, as writer J.M. DeMatteis and penciller Mike Zeck craft a story from the bits and pieces they've pieced together from Deathlok's prior appearances and seek to resolve his fate, and the fate of his future, once and for all.

But as surprising as it is to come across another Deathlok story when Marvel had put the character out of his misery over four years prior, we must first add another piece to the puzzle, in the form of Luther Manning--Deathlok's human identity before being turned into a cyborg assassin. In this case, however, the Luther Manning crucial to DeMatteis's story is actually the man's clone, created by the C.I.A. and housing the cerebral imprints of the brain of the real Manning as part of an effort to return his humanity to him. Yet Manning soon discovered that he felt no more human than his inhuman counterpart; and so, compelled to find Deathlok no matter where in time the mysterious Godwulf sent him, Manning is transported to 1983, outside of the Brand Corporation, where he is spotted by Steve Rogers--the one and only Captain America.

The Brand edifice has been abandoned since being shut down; but once introductions are made, and Manning relates his story culminating in his tracking Deathlok to the Brand complex, Cap joins forces with him to explore further, and finds the facility not so abandoned after all. Worse yet, it appears to have one hell of a security enforcer.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Demolished!


When you take into consideration the fact that the story of the character known as Deathlok--the cyborg assassin/military operative tracking his targets in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic future--took place not in his own series, but as a mid-1970s feature in the Astonishing Tales title, you would have to consider him something of a success story at the time, having managed to establish a steady readership even on a bi-monthly publication schedule that would delay each story installment for an interminable sixty days. Reader loyalty appeared far from the mind of Editor Marv Wolfman, however, when the final Deathlok story hit the stands in 1976*, without warning or acknowledgment of its cessation--its cover giving every indication of continuation for the series.



*As it happened, the last issue also coincided with the end of the Astonishing Tales book itself.

Certainly not the first issue to end a publication run abruptly and leave a big question mark hanging over its place on the spinner rack as to the resolution of its current storyline. (Silver Surfer #18 being one such example that comes to mind.)

Yet Deathlok's sudden disappearance following his encounter with the mysterious individual called Godwulf would be followed up with several spotty appearances that would have him interacting with individuals and timelines which existed nearly a decade before his own dismal future--appearances taking place in three separate titles in a span of over six years, though given that length of time it perhaps comes as no surprise that there seemed to be no story plot in effect that would tie these instances together coherently. Still, thanks in part to the covers being produced for those appearances, it's to Deathlok's credit that his character was still capable of attracting reader interest.




In essence, each story would make use of Deathlok as both a deadly threat and a victim of the circumstances he'd found himself in, as seen through the eyes of the respective books' writers at the time: David Kraft, Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald (with Ralph Macchio), and J.M. DeMatteis. It was DeMatteis who would finally break the cycle of Deathlok "guest-starring" in Marvel continuity and make an effort to resolve his situation in his own timeline--but stringing together his prior appearances in the past to get to that point would take some doing.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Turmoils In Time!


The world of fiction is replete with the concept of time travel, though that particular method of travel is especially epitomized in the more visual fiction of comic books where fantasy and adventure reign and provide it with ample conditions in which to take place, depending on the pooling of imagination between writer and artist. We've seen it grow more complicated over the years, to where one never knows if the future a time traveler may witness is set in stone, whereas the past is generally immutable; in fact the biggest concern used to be in taking care not to change the past, for fear of changing the future. In comics, however, more adventures in time are feasible because the traveler is often given the option of seeing a horrid future as one possible future, depending on the choices made in the past; and if such choices are made, one theory pulled out of a hat proposed that those choices resulted in the creation of a separate future parallel to our own. Consequently, characters tend to travel through time without any repercussions to speak of, with the dismay and anguish one may have experienced at witnessing the tragic panorama of another time vanishing with their return to the present.

The amazing Spider-Man, like many of his fellow heroes, has done his share of time traveling--though I couldn't begin to tell you how often, much less recall the circumstances of those jaunts. Three instances stand out for me, however: One, where he traveled to the past (to meet up with the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Dr. Doom, and Moondragon--there might as well be a turnstile installed for time travelers)... and on the heels of that trip, Spidey returns to the present by way of misarrivals in two decidedly different futures, first in the year 2019, and then backward nearly twenty years to 1990. And there are two decidedly different individuals in each setting to give him the lay of the land--or what's left of it.


Monday, July 13, 2020

(Almost) All You Ever Wanted To Know About Phoenix...


If you were one of those Marvel readers who went as far as you could in trying to make some sort of sense of all the subsequent appearances of Phoenix after the "death" of Jean Grey, let me just say that I'm awed by your tenacity--you've actually tried to bring order to chaos, and unfortunately may have come up empty like the rest of us. If Dark Phoenix were here right now, she would likely be amused at our effrontery and chide us for our hopelessness; nevertheless, we've likely at one time or another been part of a loose-knit circle of ardent and dogged "Phoenix-chasers" who occasionally attempt to connect the dots in the hope of justifying the many, many appearances of Phoenix though the decades that tried to build on what came before.

As your humble host at the PPC, I believe I threw in the towel on the subject at some point, though it's still enjoyable to come across a Phoenix story from the past and pull on its thread a bit to see how well it adds to--or how much it detracts from--the character's mystique (though referring to the Phoenix force as a "character" feels a little like reaching the point of no return). One such story involves Rachel Summers, herself one of those threads which was woven into the story of Phoenix simply by virtue of the fact that she is the daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey from another timeline. Rachel has the dubious distinction of being the character who started the ball rolling again on Phoenix following the end of the original storyline; and after she made a number of appearances in X-Men adventures, she was plugged in as a charter member of Excalibur, a new super-group based in Great Britain, as a sort of "Phoenix-lite" whose own connection to the Phoenix force unfolded as the book progressed.

In terms of becoming a full-blown Phoenix in her own right, however, we'll discover that Rachel finally gets to have her cake and eat it too following the events of a battle which leaves her fate uncertain--until the Phoenix itself intervenes with its own solution.





The scene where Phoenix returns to the stars (with Rachel "in tow," as it were) takes place in a story written by Alan Davis bearing a title which Phoenix-chasers no doubt applauded for its audacity, if not its accuracy: "All You Ever Wanted To Know About Phoenix... But Were Afraid To Ask," a truly laudable attempt to tie together the many appearances of Phoenix to date (in this case, July of 1992), though the story narrows its focus to those instances leading up to and involving the power's manifestation in Rachel (i.e., "All You Ever Wanted To Know About Excalibur's Phoenix..."). Davis would have probably needed an Omnibus, along with a few gallons of espresso, to tackle and bring coherence to the entire saga of Phoenix--even Mark Gruenwald would likely have balked at the task, and that's saying something.

At any rate, it's the Phoenix itself that now takes center stage in its ongoing story, sharing Rachel's body but suppressing her consciousness as Rachel continues to heal. The question is: What does it plan to do, while still tied to the mortal plane?