Friday, May 22, 2020

Beware The Invasion of Warlord Kaa! (Or Not)

It's 1977, and The Champions, the brainchild of writer Tony Isabella which featured the new Los Angeles super-team of the Black Widow, the Ghost Rider, Hercules, the Angel, and the Iceman, appears to be having a rough time establishing a firm foundation for itself as well as a firm connection with its readers*. Launched in October of '75, its second issue took three months getting to the sales rack, leaving the impression that issue #1 was simply a "pilot" concept released into the sales arena to determine if it generated sufficient interest to merit being produced on a regular basis** (as was the case with a number of early '70s first issues). Once out of the gate, the book was assigned monthly status, which seemed a good sign of its reception; yet the honeymoon appeared to be over after four issues, when the book was quietly shifted to a bimonthly schedule.

*Who were unsparing in their criticisms in the book's first letters page. Curiously, the next letters page, featuring letters apparently collected from an altogether different mailbag, looked to be carefully cultivated to shower that first issue with laurels and words like "blockbuster," while drawing favorable comparisons with the achievements of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Roy Thomas.

**Isabella instead blames a long process of selecting group members and selling Editor Len Wein on the idea: "...that task took nine months. When THE CHAMPIONS, then called GIANT-SIZE CHAMPIONS, finally got the go-ahead, it was already late. That's why there were three months between the premiere issue and the Champs' second outing." I'm not quite following the train of thought here. Isabella's reasoning would only explain why issue #1 would have taken awhile to make it to the sales rack, but not a three-month gap between that issue's publication and issue #2--i.e., once Wein had signed off and the first issue was produced and distributed, why would there have been any gap between issues from that point?

After the next  four issues were published (with two months passing between each), readers were likely surprised to see issue #9 arrive a month early, with #10 also taking just thirty days to see print--a decision which was finally hailed in #11, while making mention of some character reshuffling in the process:

It was a sensible decision to dump Fenster and Bale (the Champions' P.R. representative and lawyer, respectively)--arguably the team's ball and chain, who gave us the sense that the Champions couldn't make a move without their input. (By comparison, think of how Henry Gyrich's directives weighed down the Avengers.) Unfortunately, the announcement of the book's renewed monthly status was ill-timed: with the publication of issue #12, The Champions was returned to bi-monthly publication, where it remained until its cancellation five issues later.

And if it seems like this book is in freefall, think how Black Goliath feels at joining them on the way down!

The eleventh issue of The Champions has a number of changes worth noting, if not necessarily a game-changer for the reader--the first of course being a guest-appearance by Bill Foster (as Black Goliath), a biochemist who has worn several hats depending on where he appears. In this instance, he's turned into something of an engineer, having become Tony Stark's west coast representative as well as the man who designed the Champions' new aircraft (which obviously has some problems if it's out of control and ramming its designer). In addition, artist John Byrne comes aboard as penciler; Darkstar, who had only just recently battled the team along with the Titanium Man, the Griffin, and the Crimson Dynamo, is now a regular character if not yet a formal member; Hawkeye, no longer with the Avengers and hanging out in the southwest with the Two-Gun Kid, makes a guest appearance; and the Champions are pivoted back toward their desire to be the team for the common man--which perhaps helps to explain why they're headed to Arizona to investigate a report by ranchers of the arrival of a spacecraft, though the stakes are raised by the mysterious possession of said ranchers.

While the alien culprit once rated an appearance as one of the PPC's mystery villains:

As you might guess, the phrase "Nothing can stop us!" is the cue for the Champions' entrance (though in their current precarious publication situation, they likely wouldn't appreciate being referred to as "nothing"):

With Kaa and his race being so confident of victory this time around, it's unclear why they've chosen to establish their "beachhead" in such an isolated area with few people available for them to take possession of. Regardless, the story veers its focus from the ranchers almost immediately to the Champions, who admittedly would make powerful slaves in following through with the aliens' mission to subjugate the world's population.

Yet the length of this story (17 pages, which was standard in Marvel's books in early 1977 in exchange for your hard-earned 30¢) works against any effort to elevate the drama of such a plan when the Champions don't arrive in force until page 12, unless this issue ended in a cliffhanger; but unlike Rampage, a villain in early Champions stories who arguably overstayed his welcome, this affair is wrapped up fairly soon when the Champions resist the aliens' takeover attempts long enough for Hawkeye and the Ghost Rider to end their threat.

By the time of the next Champions issue, word was released of plans to increase the team's exposure by loaning them out to guest-star appearances, two of which the PPC has featured: an Avengers story where Iron Man is forced to battle Hercules, and a crossover with Super-Villain Team-Up involving a power play between Magneto and Dr. Doom. The third, a team-up with Iron Man in the 1977 Iron Man Annual, is an issue I'm still giving thought to as to whether to spotlight it here. I realize that's not exactly wording that would make it something to look forward to; in fact, I wouldn't blame you for thinking it's begun to look as if I've swooped in here with guns blazing (critically speaking), having few good things to say about the Champions. I suppose in looking back at the missteps taken with the book, The Champions at times comes across to me as a tutorial on how not to make a hit comic book--still a frustrating perspective to have about a 1975-78 series on which the dust has long since settled.


Colin Jones said...

So Black Widow is the team leader but Hercules appears in the corner box.

Tiboldt said...

John Byrne professed to not liking Bob Layton's inks, which is a shame because I'm a fan of both of their work. Certainly Layton had a very heavy style but this worked well with Joe Staton and he's the only inker I've seen that made Infantino bearable.

The three issues of the Champions must have been the longest run of Byrne and Layton working together.

On a different note, was the Champions building equipped with a welding torch and goggles for a giant or did BG bring his own?

Comicsfan said...

For that matter, Tiboldt, wouldn't it be difficult to achieve the precision you'd need for a welding job if the torch were roughly three feet in height? (Though I suppose if it were proportional to the hand wielding it...)

Colin, you do have a way with an inference, my friend!