Wednesday, April 29, 2020

In Pursuit of... Doom!

Sweet Christmas! What the heck set these two off?

Eight issues into its run, Luke Cage, Hero For Hire is already turning to guest appearances to beef up its sales, and by coincidence this tale just happens to revolve around money--or, more to the point, the title character being short-changed by the lord of Latveria himself, Dr. Doom.

What could have led up to such a situation? It seems that some of Doom's robots have turned on their master and fled to the United States with state secrets, disguised as humans. And so Cage is hired by proxy to find and capture these "men," with his client obviously wishing to remain anonymous and withhold any information as to who is paying Cage's bill or the true nature of the "individuals" he's being paid to find (and at $200/day, which was probably a decent fee in 1973 for someone in Cage's line of work.)

But in the process, he discovers exactly what these "thieves" are when they put up more of a fight than Cage was expecting and their facade of human flesh is ripped away--and so he pays a little trip to his client's abode, the Latverian embassy, where Cage has his first meeting with that country's king.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Final Battle of Captain America

It starts with a familiar scene: Captain America, leaping into a dangerous situation without hesitation in order to save lives, using the time-tested skill and daring that have made him a living legend.

But despite appearances, something is not right here. And the hero of the day displays an edge, an attitude, that is atypical of the Captain America we know--yet normal behavior for this man. So much so that he must be confronted by the only one suited to rein him in.

Yes, two living legends, but only one who would truly be deserving of such a description. And it is well past time that both men took a meeting, and talked--though only one of them has words which the other needs to hear.

Friday, April 24, 2020


It came as something of a surprise to witness the departure from the pages of Doctor Strange of the character we know as Clea--the lover and disciple who had become a fixture in the sorcerer's life since 1964, after he liberated her from the Dark Dimension of the Dread Dormammu. Perhaps equally surprising were her reasons: feeling that she was ill-suited to be a disciple to Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, and also having become convinced that another woman harbored even greater love for Strange than herself. A presence in both of Strange's series (as well as, to some degree, in The Defenders), Clea's exit created a void in his life as depicted by writer Roger Stern, shattering his resolve and leaving him vulnerable to despair. Only after prevailing in a life-or-death struggle was Strange able to put the episode behind him--effectively reclaiming his book's solo status after over seventeen years of having Clea featured in it.

But would her absence create a void in Doctor Strange? While I feel obliged to raise the point, I can't bring myself to argue in its favor, since I've admittedly never warmed to Clea as a compelling character in her own right. Once the "disciple" trigger was pulled by Steve Englehart, it would have been difficult to sever Clea's status with Strange or with the book, short of the character's death; but I still felt that her position as Strange's disciple should not have been the reason for her becoming a mainstay in the book and factoring her into all of its plots. Eventually, you wind up with covers like this one, carrying a caption which virtually grants her co-star status:

Can you say you were shelling out 50¢ to read the adventures of "Doctor Strange and Clea"? Looking back, I can see the wisdom of locating Strange, himself a disciple at the time, half a world away from the Ancient One and having Strange be the one to take point on whatever threat needed dealing with.

Curiously, it was a story in this very issue--taking place just seven issues before Clea would depart--which had me wondering if Stern might have been thinking out loud (through Strange) about Clea's viability in both the book and at Strange's side. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was the story's focus--mostly a one-shot which supplements the issue's main tale--but it adds some interesting perspective to a situation which wouldn't be long in coming. This could of course just be me reading between the lines here... but feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts on the subject, and on Clea in general.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Plan To Reclaim America

In the fall of 2008, we saw the surprising return of William Burnside, the Captain America of the 1950s, who presumably had met his end in a 1979 story when making a fatal attempt to break free of the hold of Dr. Faustus, who had effectively shattered his identity as Captain America by first having him murder his young partner, Bucky, and then installing him as the Grand Director of a white supremacist group. Incredibly, the super-soldier serum which he'd administered to himself and Bucky (in the hope that they could help the legend of the original Cap and Bucky live on) was a factor in his survival then; but he awakened only to find that Faustus was conditioning him for another task, this time furthering the agenda of the Red Skull.

Once that scheme had met defeat, Burnside slipped away in the confusion, only to resurface in early 2010--having finally been left to himself to pick up the pieces of his life and move forward in some way as Captain America, his unbalanced mind still rejecting the America that he'd found himself in. To that end, he returns to his roots in Boise, Idaho, where writer Ed Brubaker lets us inside that mind to get a sense of what preoccupies this man.

It's a fine line that Brubaker walks in his narrative, given how rare it is that someone who is insane has the presence of mind to acknowledge that fact to the point of struggling to suppress it. Burnside's success rate in that respect has been practically nil--for instance, perhaps the moment in '72 in which he recognized that he'd been venting his rage against the original Captain America... and of course when, as the Grand Director, he attempted to break away from Faustus. Apart from those times, he's pursued objectives that no clear-headed individual would rationalize as respectable, much less worthy of the ideals held by Captain America.

And so it's unfortunate he lands in a city where there resides an organization almost tailor-made to his goals, and to the methods he's willing to use to attain them.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Pawn Of The Red Skull!

Following the 1972 introduction of William Burnside, the mentally unstable Captain America of the 1950s--and his subsequent fall from grace at having to be brought down by the Captain America he idolized--there seemed to be no hope for recovery for this man whose good intentions at filling the shoes of his wartime hero were tragically undone by his twisted vision of what America, and what the ideal American, should be. Almost immediately intercepted by the villainous Dr. Faustus after being taken into custody, "Cap" was thereafter conditioned into assuming a new identity as the Grand Director, the figurehead of a white supremacist organization called the National Force; but when Faustus was confronted by the real Cap, the Director made a drastic choice when Faustus insisted he attack his namesake, and instead activated a device on his person which incinerated him.

As for Jack Monroe, Burnside's young sidekick, "Bucky"--who came clean with the real Captain America and went on to assume Cap's discarded identity as the Nomad--he would later meet his death at the hands of James Barnes, the original Bucky, who had been conscripted by the Russians as the assassin known as the Winter Soldier but who was later freed of his mental enslavement and in time took on the identity of Captain America, at Cap's behest. As we'll discover, that irony will not be lost on one of the principal characters of the story the PPC spotlights today.

And that story begins nearly thirty years later (our time), as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, who herself had been manipulated by Faustus into killing Captain America following the events of Civil War, has infiltrated the lair of Faustus and his associates, the Red Skull and Arnim Zola, where she discovers someone who appears to be Steve Rogers--a man she knows to be dead by her own hand. Yet when she investigates further, she confirms the identity of this man: another "Captain America" who should be dead, and, given his appearance, has her recalling his fate as part of the National Force.

A slight error on writer Ed Brubaker's part--in the earlier story, scripter Michael Fleisher made it clear that the Director took his own life as opposed to any prompting from Faustus (though it could be argued that Faustus's manipulative handling of Burnside "made" him take such a step to break free of his conditioning). But though Sharon isn't privy to how Burnside survived, nor what has affected his memory, she means to see to it that his involvement in this plot, whether consensual or not, ends now.

Some of you will recognize Aleksander Lukin, who played a key part in bringing the Soldier out of stasis to further a plot to gain the Cosmic Cube; and if so, you also know of his relationship with (or, rather, "connection" to) the Skull, who will also play a part in this drama.

Faustus, as it turns out, not only still has his hooks in Burnside, but also in Sharon--though it's his expertise involving the former character which holds interest for the Skull and Zola.

Friday, April 17, 2020

"To Have Loved...And Lost!"

By now, you may have noticed that among the many Marvel tales you've come across in this humble blog, the PPC has been known to be partial to those stories written by Roger Stern; and, if we were to narrow that focus further, a number of Doctor Strange stories would be singled out. And so it may have occurred to you that by this time there simply can't be any more gold to mine from that particular deposit. Au contraire, mes amis. In a tale from late 1982, we come across the Master of the Mystic Arts in one of his darkest hours, a crushing of his spirit from which there seems to be no escape.

Yet the cause is not a crisis which mushroomed beyond his control, or a foe who outmaneuvered or otherwise brought him to the brink of defeat, but rather the onset of a broken heart following the sudden departure of his disciple and longtime love, Clea--who left Strange in part because of her persistent feeling that she is out of place on our world, but also because she has recently become aware that her love for him is lacking in comparison to another woman who has come to mean something to him.

Clea speaks of Morgana Blessing, a writer whom Strange believes has some latent mystic ability, but who unfortunately became involved in a conflict between Strange and Baron Mordo that caused a part of her soul to begin travelling back to Earth's past.  Strange was ultimately successful in retrieving the "soul shard"--but obviously the situation has had a profound effect on Clea.

As the driving force of this story, and with all due respect to Mr. Stern, I can't help but agree with Strange as to Clea's rationale here: her reasons do sound like "rubbish," as well as noticeably contrived, perhaps as a way to pivot Strange in a new direction that would have him once again flying solo in his book rather than splitting the attention he alone should be receiving with another mystic who must always be taken into account. Yet I should qualify that criticism by adding the observation that I agree it's the right call to make; after all, the fact that Clea is Strange's disciple means that by definition she would be with the book indefinitely and would thus factor into nearly all of the story plots in one way or another. That begs an important question: How many readers want to read "The Adventures of Dr. Strange and Clea"? Show of hands? I'm one of those on board with the decision to eject her; my only objection is that the justification for it comes off as flimsy. A broken heart has admittedly been used as a plot device to effect change in other books; Fantastic Four comes to mind, where Crystal breaks with Johnny Storm, and Reed was certainly down in the dumps following his separation from Sue. But in neither of those situations did the people involved appear to fumble for excuses to the extent that Clea does here (unless you count Sue's off-the-cuff reasoning for returning to Reed).

All of that said, the situation does little to blunt the quality of this story, if we accept Strange's anguish as genuine (Clea had been with him for a very long time, after all, going all the way back to the original Strange Tales). And even the Sorcerer Supreme is vulnerable to the depths of despair suffered by the ordinary man when a loved one departs for good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

1001 Assassins!

I must admit to having little knowledge of or exposure to the French combat sport known as savate, where one who engages in it uses both their hands and feet against their opponent in a combination of kicking techniques and boxing. Our western equivalent would seem to be the sport of kickboxing, though savate involves the use of shoes in sparring. (Beats me why kickboxers wear boxing gloves, since their bare feet are capable of inflicting the injury that gloves are designed to at least buffer; the "boxing shoes" that savate fighters wear also appear to provide a measure of protection for the bones in the foot.)

In comics, the poster character for the art of savate would of course be the French mercenary named Batroc, who's often met Captain America in battle but has also crossed paths with Danny Rand, the nimble and well-trained Iron Fist, whose fighting style is much different from Cap's and places a greater emphasis on martial arts. Batroc often puts up a good fight against Cap but seldom prevails despite his bluster and enthusiasm; but while Iron Fist would appear to have a greater repertoire of striking techniques than Batroc, combined with his own talent for placing kicks, I couldn't tell you which fighter would come out on top in a hand-to-hand match (though admittedly I'd have to have good reason for putting my money on Batroc).

One issue I thought might provide the answer would be their first meeting in Marvel Premiere, a title where Iron Fist got his start and kept a lock on for a little over a year. And given my curiosity on the matter, the cover seemed to have me in mind in making its pitch.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Hunt for Madam Medusa!

Even before its main story gears up, Fantastic Four #44 from late 1965 has a few bullet points to draw the comic enthusiast's notice. For one thing, it's the first FF story which takes place following the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm in that year's Fantastic Four Annual, so this would be the first we'd see of them in action as a married couple. (Uh, well, you know what I mean.) In addition, the issue not only paves the way for a new race of super-beings in the form of the Inhumans, but it also marks the point where Madam Medusa is suddenly shifted from her role as a villainess to being a member of that race, a shift which effectively sweeps her past as one of the Frightful Four under the rug. There are also two noteworthy returns to the book: Dragon Man, brought to life by the villain Diablo but presumed lost--and, in the real world, the return of inker Joe Sinnott, whose work on the FF at this point consisted of only a single issue from mid-1962 but who brings his talented brush-hand back aboard for an extended stay that would deservedly bring accolades to the Kirby/Sinnott art team well past their collaboration.

But judging by the issue's cover and subsequent splash page, there's one more character meant to grab our attention here--one of the first Inhumans we lay eyes on (aside from Medusa), and who, disturbingly, appears to be fixing his eyes on us.

But it's Medusa who has to watch out for this bruiser.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Ka-Zar, 2.0!

As we've already seen examples of, Marvel wasn't exactly reluctant when it came to using the Fantastic Four mag, its hot property in the '60s, to promote its growing stable of characters as well as other titles which could benefit from the exposure. In an FF issue from 1965, we would see both of those factors being met by a promotional blurb tucked away in a "special announcements section" appearing in the FF's letters page, which not only gave a shout-out to the X-Men title but also pitched a new Marvel character, who really turned out to be not so new on the scene after all.

Yes, Ka-Zar, who dates back all the way to the 1930s--first appearing in 1936 in a brief series of pulp magazines by Bob Byrd, and then adapted for Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.

Basically, the plane of the Rand family crashes in the Congo, with Constance Rand eventually dying from a jungle-born illness--followed much later by the father, John, which left their son, David, to grow up in the company of the animals he befriends and vice versa. One of these animals, a lion named Zar, has become particularly close to him and has watched over David since John and David began fending for themselves following the crash.

The 1939 tale essentially presents that story in comic book format:

Twenty-five years later, Ka-Zar is given new life as a grown man, with Zar being replaced with Zabu (a sabre-toothed tiger) and Ka-Zar's habitat moving from the Congo to the South Pole, thus giving us our first look at the Antarctic prehistoric preserve which would be later known as the Savage Land--discovered by the X-Men when they investigate reports of the two being encountered by members of an Antarctic expedition.

Yet it's only when the X-Men fall prey to a primitive group of marauders do they meet both Ka-Zar and the loyal beast at his side.

With (who else?) Marvel Girl being taken captive by the marauders (whom Ka-Zar calls the swamp men), Ka-Zar and the X-Men have a common foe, and Ka-Zar agrees to help with her rescue--though he mainly stays true to his character as written, someone who normally shuns outsiders and acts in accordance with his instincts. In the meantime, however, the Angel is taken captive as well, and it becomes clear that both of them need to gain their freedom before the swamp men put them in even greater danger.

Fortunately for the X-Men, it seems that Ka-Zar, in true Tarzan fashion, has unique resources to literally call upon, should the need arise.

But while the X-Men's contact with Ka-Zar has been tolerant, he doesn't share their desire for an extended friendship, even taking further steps to seal off his jungle domain upon their departure.

We would see more of Ka-Zar and the X-Men joining in common cause when Magneto ends up in the Savage Land and begins creating mutants from the the indigenous population there--with the story again taking advantage of the limited but perceptible chemistry between Ka-Zar and the X-Men, individuals who share the status of existing apart from the human race, whether out of caution or choice.

Monday, April 6, 2020

God vs. Titan!

When last we left the mighty (and unfortunately insane) Thor, he had finally been subdued after having undertaken a violent and seemingly inexplicable rampage through the stars--all part of the 1993-94 "Blood and Thunder" crossover event that would end up involving Warlock, the Infinity Watch, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, and Thanos of Titan. (To say nothing of the Super Skrull, Ares, Pluto, and Beta Ray Bill--as well as crossing paths with another crossover event, The Infinity Crusade.) By the time of his capture, Thor has managed to acquire for himself from Drax the Destroyer the "power" Infinity Gem, which, added to his own considerable might, makes the Thunder God one of the most extreme threats ever to face the universe should he ever break free of the containment field which Thanos had managed to encase him in.

What has only recently come to light is that Thor's rage doesn't stem from the Asgardian "warrior madness" which he'd experienced in the past, but is instead rooted in the instances when his father Odin has in one way or another manipulated his spirit, whether it was by forcing him to coexist with a mortal form or by use of disciplinary measures, all of which have led to an imbalance in his soul. A further complication of this saga is that the Lady Sif, who remains unaware of this, continues to believe that Thor once again suffers from warrior madness, and has attempted to keep that news from Odin for fear that Thor will be exiled from Asgard. But her house of cards in that respect begins to crumble with the recent arrival of Thanos and his party on the rainbow bridge, as they seek an audience with Odin in the hope that he can cure his son.

Though Thanos has all but ensured that their reception will be anything but a cordial one.