Friday, January 24, 2020

Matrix Eight--Supplier of the Sinister

Or: "How To Harness The Hulk"

Shortly after the brief Roger Stern/John Byrne period on Captain America had run its course, what appears to be an inventory story was published--one which no doubt benefited from its eye-catching cover.

It's easy enough to connect the dots on the presumed scheduling difficulties associated with getting this issue prepped for publication--one sure tip-off being that it consists of just seventeen pages of story, followed by five pages of filler material from Marvel's old parody mag, Not Brand Echh (three of which were shamelessly tied to issue #255). There are also the story's credits, which are somewhat conspicuous in their diversity. This would be the only issue of Captain America penciled by Golden Age British-American artist Lee Elias, who worked on a handful of Marvel titles (most notably The Human Fly) before retiring from comics about a year after this story's publication. There were similar circumstances for scripter Mike Barr, having written only one other tale for the title (aside from a What If tale featuring the character); like Elias, he mainly contributed sparse work on second-string titles such as Solo Avengers, Marvel Preview, Marvel Spotlight, et al. And as for inking chores, the nomenclature of "M. Hands," shorthand for a number of inkers pitching in on pages or even individual panels in order to finish the issue, speaks for itself.

None of which is an indication that this story is necessarily a bad one; I came away from it, instead, feeling it was sub-par, and your own mileage may vary. The one thing we may likely all agree on is that it leaves one with the impression that it was shelved for a rainy day, which in 1981 cost us 50¢ to find out--a sum that admittedly elicits little more than a shrug in 2020, but one can only shudder at the thought that inventory stories might be appearing in store racks even today, at around $5 a pop.

For Cap, the story starts off quite nicely, actually, as a makes a yearly pilgrimage to northern England, to overlook the site where his friend and former partner, Bucky Barnes, was caught in an explosion over the ocean that took his life. But from the look of things, on this year he may not be afforded the solitude that such reflection calls for.

It doesn't take long for our villains in waiting to make their move--and soon enough, it becomes clear why they've targeted Cap, along with one other.

The fact that organizations such as A.I.M. and Hydra would feel the need to bolster their own R&D departments with weaponry developed by Matrix Eight is a little astonishing, given that it's a virtual admission that they're not a cut above anything that M8 would be able to offer them; it seems more likely that their ruthlessness would mandate simply taking over and absorbing M8 into their own hierarchy. That said, if M8 can develop something like the Gammadroid and see it tested successfully, they may be able to play hardball with their clients and insist on the autonomy necessary to provide viable results.

None of which interests Cap, as he makes a break for freedom with the M8 gunsels hot on his heels. Complicating matters for him is the need to rescue Banner; unfortunately, his method of accomplishing that will end up causing him no small amount of personal danger.

There is, of course, the Gammadroid to still consider, "a being as powerful as the Hulk"--though by now we get a sense that the danger it poses will be minimal and quickly dispatched, particularly when most of the page count here is being used to depict the conflict between Cap and the Hulk. And indeed, some quick thinking on Cap's part facilitates that very outcome, though it doesn't let Cap off the hook.

An escape hatch that's actually labelled "Escape Hatch." Now you just know you want to stand up and applaud the absurdity of that.

Admittedly, the Hulk is pretty much a sap throughout this story, lacking any of the nuances on display in his own series that make him both unique and interesting as a solo character. To Cap at this point, the Hulk is mainly useful as a resource, to be pointed in the right direction when circumstances warrant the use of his strength--and that's just how this pair is not only going to escape their captivity, but they'll also bring the head villain of Matrix Eight down in the process, in an ending which might as well have a bow wrapped around it.

In an effort to retain some symmetry with its opening, Barr's story then loops back to Cap's purpose for coming to this locale. It's hard to picture Banner and Cap having a "moment" scene that bonds them in some way; Banner has so few friends and is usually so preoccupied with his own predicament that a bonding moment with Captain America based on some common ground shared between them seems almost forced, though I can see no good reason for them not to have such a moment under the circumstances. Frankly, it provides a more coherent and meaningful ending to this tale than I was expecting to find.

Captain America #257

Script: Mike Barr
Pencils: Lee Elias
Inks: M. Hands
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Anonymous said...

Ha, here we go...

Cap is making a pilgrimage to northern England but taxi drivers (or anybody else) in northern England don't speak like that - and the story is set in 1981 but the taxi looks like a relic from the 1920s. Then Cap goes to cliffs overlooking the North, one small problem...cliffs in northern England overlook either a) the Irish Sea or b) the North Sea. To see the North Atlantic Cap would need to go further north into Scotland. So just the usual meticulous research about Britain by Marvel's American writers :D

Big Murr said...

I don't track the scoffing on your part for "Escape Hatch". Walk down the hallway of any office building and you'll see doors with "Stairway" or "Exit" or "Alarmed-Emergency Exit Only". When an emergency has the adrenalin pumping, a guy doesn't want to be flinging open doors to find the way out by process of elimination.

Any analysis of Megalomaniacal Bloviators (in this case Matrix Eight) always seems to fall into the trap that, for all their technical genius, they actually have all their dogs barking and pulling their mental sled. In this case, claiming they supply AIM or Hydra with toys could be nothing but a face-saving delusional lie. No strutting super-villain is going to brag to Captain America "Yeah, we're a small R&D department existing at Hydra's day-to-day sufferance."

As I've ranted often in this very forum, these filler issues always ladled another splash of bitterness on me at being swindled. It's not the 50¢ ($1.48 in today's money) as much as keenly anticipating this month's Captain America and getting a half-serving of stale, warm beer.

Tiboldt said...

It's even worse - that so-called Escape Hatch wasn't even a proper emergency exit because it opens inward. Health and Safety would have been all over that and it shows an utter lack of professionalism from Matrix Eight. You can see why they never rose to the level of Hydra or AIM. How they ever got Dick van Dyke to work for them is the mystery.

Did we ever find out what Bruce Banner was doing in the North of England?

Comicsfan said...

Colin, you absolutely rock--keep on keeping them honest, guy! For what it's worth, though, artist Elias was British-American, originally hailing from Manchester but emigrating when he was a boy, which would have been around 1930. So maybe we can cut him a little slack as far as that taxi as well as the speech of our informant on the phone, as he may have had a touch of simple wistfulness. :)

Murray, fair enough points on Matrix Eight's escape hatch--let's hope anyone still trapped in the facility when the whole place blew sky high knew the way out, since the Hulk pretty much destroyed any chance of reading that state-of-the-art sign on the door!

Tiboldt, Banner was actually captured in "a sleazy hotel somewhere in the midwest" and subsequently flown to England where he was delivered to Matrix Eight. (Where he was no doubt disappointed to find that his new accommodations were a step down from where he was taken.)