Monday, June 29, 2020

Hail, Madame Hydra!

Ophelia Sarkissian may not be a name that immediately rings a bell for Marvel readers, but the character has enjoyed a long and prolific career as one of the company's most deadly and recognizable villains, establishing a reputation that precedes her throughout the world and a "rap sheet" that no doubt makes for an eye-opening file in the databases of both Interpol and S.H.I.E.L.D. You likely know her as Viper, gaining her name much the same way as she acquires anything--through the use of deadly force.

While there's no question that the original Viper was dangerous in his own right, his successor has an edge on him not only in sheer violence but also the fact that her dedication to nihilism is ultimately the driving force of her actions.

Yet in spite of Viper's longevity and greater notoriety as a character, I still wonder at times why Madame Hydra, her original role, wasn't given the same amount of attention and was quickly abandoned. It's hard to pin the blame on the organizations that each was originally affiliated with--Hydra, despite its broader reach and resources, arguably isn't that much of an improvement over the Serpent Squad in terms of story draw, and each had their fair share of stories featuring conflicts with Captain America. My layman's guess is that Madame Hydra was scripted very two-dimensionally by Stan Lee, though Lee and artist Jim Steranko at least made an effort to explore her character in the early days.

The full-page shot of Madame Hydra addressing the troops doesn't make for a bad pin-up, thanks to all the trimmings that Steranko and Lee provide at first glance: We have Madame Hydra herself, imperious and commanding; we're privy to the Hydra oath in its entirety; we're shown the Hydra emblem in the background; and naturally we're witness to the unfortunate Hydra minion who receives the ultimate penalty for his failure. (The Warrant of Death is a new one on me--if someone announces that you're being handed something called the Warrant of Death, what person in their right mind reaches out to take it?)

Yet Madame Hydra's claim to fame wasn't even of her doing, but rather the unwilling part she played in the master plan of the Space Phantom, part of which involved targeting Captain America on behalf of the Grim Reaper:

While logic suggests that there is only one person acting as the "Supreme Hydra," it's also reasonable to assume that there are subordinates who take charge of Hydra's cells around the world and report directly to the S.H. We learn later that there are other Madame Hydras leading their own contingents (one is featured in the 1988 Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. mini-series)--yet it's interesting that there doesn't seem to be a male counterpart for the position with his own title. (Maybe just "Leader"? "Mr." or "Monsieur Hydra" comes off as silly, even for a comic book.)

The death of Madame Hydra that the Phantom speaks of takes place during the culmination of a plan meant to destroy Cap, the Avengers, and Nick Fury. Yet as we know, it's difficult to declare Captain America dead and turn out to be right about it--and when he and Rick Jones turn the tables on her, it's Madame Hydra herself who sows the seeds (or hunter missiles, in this case) of her own destruction.

The panel which the Phantom's recap indicates was the moment in which he replaced Madame Hydra would be where she yells to her hordes to destroy Cap and Rick--which later makes the Phantom a pretty good actor at the point where "Madame Hydra" later appears earnest in admitting her own failure and launches the missiles. It's anyone's guess how the Phantom escaped death from the unexpected missile impact on "his" own position, though it's reasonable to assume he'd have more resources to escape the blast than Madame Hydra would have.

As for Madame Hydra, she returns from Limbo fairly soon afterward, with the Phantom relocating to a Hydra base underneath a gutted tenement on the lower east side of Manhattan and switching bodies once more to replace the Supreme Hydra in order to continue with his plan. Once freed from Limbo, it takes awhile for Madame Hydra to resurface, the circumstances of which she explains to her new subordinates in the Serpent Squad--a meeting where it's fair to again wonder aloud why the Cobra's power makes him such a reputed threat.

Obviously the Viper isn't worried any longer about Hydra looking her up and taking vengeance against her.

For what it's worth, we learn a little more of Madame Hydra's origin through a 2010 flashback featured in the Secret Warriors series, though its focus is obviously on the Viper and her untimely end--"end" being a rather fluid word in the Marvel universe.

And of course there's nothing like confronting your murderer after your death.

Hail, Madame Hydra--a Viper in a nest of serpents.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Havoc In The Hidden Land!"

Invaders from the 5th Dimension have taken control of the Great Refuge of the Inhumans! Holding the royal family captive is their conqueror, Xemu, who intends to employ his sonic amplifier, the "thunder horn," to sow the seeds of war with the nations of Earth, using the voice of Black Bolt as a weapon of mass destruction--and to ensure the former monarch's cooperation, Xemu has dispatched Quicksilver to New York City to retrieve Medusa, a member of the Fantastic Four but also Black Bolt's betrothed, as the means by which Black Bolt will have no choice but to concede to Xemu's demands.

But Xemu's patience wears thin, and time is running out! As the FF blast off and head for the hidden land of the Inhumans, will they be able to challenge a ruthless invader willing to shed the blood of his hostages?

Monday, June 22, 2020

"Invasion From The 5th Dimension!"

With writer Roy Thomas back in the driver's seat following Gerry Conway's twenty-month stay on Fantastic Four, artist Rich Buckler continued to make his mark on the title, handing both writers a number of successful tales to work with in a run which lasted over two years (though taking a break for a few issues). One of the earliest of those tales was just after Thomas had re-dipped his toes in the FF's waters by joining Len Wein to wrap up the Dr. Doom/Silver Surfer plot which had entangled the team; from there, Thomas moved to guest-starring the uncanny Inhumans, along with a villain who had the misfortune of crossing paths with one of the FF well over a decade before.

In the 1975 two-part tale, Zemu is dusted off and instead reintroduced as "Xemu," though you can continue to pronounce them the same, courtesy of the dizzying spin applied to the error by the letters page armadillo tasked with explaining it away:

(TBH, I happen to prefer "Xemu," though I can't bring myself to high-five the writer of that response when they couldn't cough up a simple "Oops" and leave it at that.)

Yet aside from the threat Xemu poses, in the spirit of FYI there are a number of takeaways from this story which are notable. For one, it marks the end of Medusa's lengthy stay in the book as a member of the FF, instated by Thomas as a replacement for Sue Richards just after the team helped the Inhumans come to terms with their personal shame in the form of the construct called Omega; in addition, Medusa's departure not only coincides with Sue's decision to return to the team, but also with Johnny Storm's decision to return to his original blue costume, having adopted the costume colors of his namesake, the android Torch, at the same time Medusa had decided to join the team.  (Though Johnny's later decision to do an about-face on his costume choice actually had more to do with the real-life editorial decision implemented to avoid confusion in regard to the reappearance of the original Torch in The Avengers.)

On a more humorous note, Ben Grimm, the Thing, once more is cajoled into attending the opera with his lady, Alicia Masters--and as we can see in a comparison with a prior story from 1963, the circumstances he encounters after the performance are equally disagreeable.

While Johnny finds that, where women are concerned, clothes don't necessarily make the man:

And do you remember when Sue was toying with the idea of becoming a private eye?

A line of work she appears to have a talent for, as seen in her 2019 series where she flies solo as a secret agent--an occupation made retroactive to shortly after she gained her force field powers.  But the scene actually appears to be more of a nod to recent letters that wanted Sue to be more of a force in her own right post-reconciliation with Reed, with one letter's response hinting at a new development for her:  " the next issue or two, ... you'll see Sue begin a whole new career--the last one you ever thought she'd pick!"  Apparently toying with the idea was as far as it went.

Other items of interest include the fact that the Baxter Building has had a secret entrance all this time, which either Quicksilver, the Inhumans, or their foe have knowledge about:

It also turns out that Quicksilver is now considered an Inhuman, by decree and by himself:

Yet as to the main story, regrettably you'll find that it lifts a good deal of its content from an earlier FF two-parter from 1969 while simply replacing the threat of Maximus with Zemu Xemu. Though where Maximus achieved his goal from the use of hypno-potions, Xemu, while no stranger to deposing rulers through the use of force, makes good use of dimensional transport to bypass any perimeter defenses which the Inhumans have in place and basically take the royal family by complete surprise.

Friday, June 19, 2020

X-Men: Revisited

In late June of 2018, artist/writer John Byrne could be found penciling and then posting in his forum a few off-the-cuff pages of the X-Men in all-new action (yet as they still were in both garb and lineup during the fall of 1980), when a thought occurred--which subsequently materialized as a separate post he would make in said forum:

"Just had one of my wilder ideas. Remember when Chris was doing X-MEN FOREVER, picking up from when he left the book? Immediately some people started speculating about me doing the same, X-MEN EVERMORE, picking up from my own exit point.

"But just now I thought of something that would be even more fun. For the sake of reference, let's call it X-MEN ELSEWHEN, picking up with the coda of X-MEN 136, but proceeding as if Shooter hadn't thrown his king-sized monkey wrench into the works! So Jean doesn't die, Scott doesn't leave, and, well, a whole bunch of other stuff does and doesn't happen.

"(And, no, not scripted by Chris!!)

"Never gonna happen, but fun to think about."

Forum readers were receptive. Further pages were sporadically posted, again with no narrative or dialog--simply various scenes with the team in action in what appeared to be the Savage Land. But as Byrne continued to nurture this inclination, and the back-and-forth in the forum continued, a pattern gradually began to emerge, and the pages began to appear sequentially; and as they progressed to a bona fide story, talk eventually surfaced about the possibility of approaching Marvel (or, as it happened, vice versa) about turning this idea into a commercial project.

To make a long story short, that prospect was explored but ultimately abandoned. But eventually it became clear that Byrne was interested in continuing with this story's premise--and one year later, he decided to begin releasing it on his forum, a page at a time, scripting the story as he went along, complete with dialog, narrative, titles, and would you believe even sound effects. There would be no inking, coloring, formal lettering, or covers, but he did design a masthead for the "book":

To date, there have been ten full "issues" of X-Men: Elsewhen posted, with issue #11 in progress. All issues are free, and viewable by the general public--as are all forum comments related to each issue (though to submit a comment you're required to register with the forum). And while what's being produced is naturally not as polished as a copy you'd pick up at the store, the work is of course first-rate considering the source, while giving the reader an intriguing look at the creative process fresh from the drawing board.

Following is a limited number of sample pages which should give you an idea of what to expect if you decide to have a look at the issues in their entirety. As Byrne notes, the story begins at the point where the Shi'ar are returning the X-Men to Earth following their defeat by the Shi'ar Imperial Guard on the moon, a battle that never progressed to the point of the rebirth of Dark Phoenix or Jean's subsequent decision to end her life. As to the whys and wherefores in regard to what exactly happened... true to Byrne's piecemeal style in plotting a story, those answers will unfold in their own good time in order to accommodate an ongoing sense of drama in the overall tale. (Assuming they do unfold in full--the story is at the writer's discretion, after all. ;) )

In addition, nestled in with these preview pages are a selection of Mr. Byrne's comments at various points of the process which give a sense of the project being ironed out from the ground up, while also offering fascinating nuggets of behind-the-scenes info. (The segments may or may not align with the pages you're viewing here--if by some miracle they do, I assure you it's mostly accidental on my part.) If you've read Byrne's turn-of-the-century series X-Men: The Hidden Years, you already have an idea of how he would handle the X-Men (and Xavier) if holding the reins--though whether or not you agreed with his take on the team, you may still appreciate a different look at both the timeline and the characters, as well as a number of nods which Byrne gives to continuity taking place in both Uncanny X-Men and other titles.

And adding my own 2 cents, I think on the whole you'll find it to be compelling reading.  :D

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

In The Grip Of The Psycho-Man!

Let's just recap how bleak things are looking recently, shall we?

  • The Silver Surfer, fed up with his treatment by the hostile human race, refuses to turn the other cheek any longer and vows to meet force with force and violence with violence, "battl[ing] them on their own savage terms!" (That means we're in for it with interest, folks.)
  • Reaching New York City, the Surfer unhesitatingly begins blasting large areas of the city to rubble, unmindful of the innocent lives he puts in danger!
  • Spider-Man, the only hero in the vicinity (or, put another way, the only hero in the entire city who notices the continual devastation taking place--which one sounds more unbelievable?), responds to the emergency and fights bravely to stop the Surfer's rampage, but in the end falls beneath the onslaught of the Surfer's power!
  • With Spider-Man at his mercy, the Surfer prepares to end his life--while in the wings, the true cause of the Surfer's emotion-charged violence is revealed to be the sub-atomic alien known as Psycho-Man!

By the way, the Surfer currently has no mercy to offer his fallen foe--so does this mean it's finally curtains for Spider-Man? It probably would be--if members of the very race the Surfer loathes didn't rush in to save the web-spinner's life without a second thought, even at the cost of their own.

Yet one remains on the scene who actually appreciates the chaos and destruction that's taken place--and continues to torment the alleged perpetrator.

What plan drives Psycho-Man's behavior on our world? And before he's through, will he succeed in dooming the Silver Surfer?

Monday, June 15, 2020

When Strikes the Savagely Sensational New Silver Surfer!

In September of 1970, Silver Surfer readers were presented with a tantalizing, and potentially terrifying, cliffhanger:

A startling scene which unfortunately coincided with the end of the series' 18-issue run, due to disappointing sales. Of course the more jolting news came in the "Stan's Soapbox" segment of the Bullpen Bulletins page for that issue which announced the departure of artist Jack Kirby, who apparently had turned in his work for the story with one foot out the door, leaving his celebrated run at Marvel Comics for greener (and reportedly fairer) pastures--though if you were still on page one, his name on the story's credits might likely have had you wondering as to whether he was taking over the book as its regular artist.

Yet there was still the matter of the Surfer's final dramatic scene, one so compelling that it would necessitate being followed up on before any future appearances for the Surfer could be arranged. How surprising, then, to see its ramifications dispensed with so quickly, when the Surfer is brought back into circulation five months later (as part of the newly-formed "Titans Three"):

As cooling-off periods go, the Surfer's surely sets a new standard.

But almost 29 years later, writer Eric Stephenson dusts off that dangling plot in order to resolve it in the Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man series, which in this case turns time back to shortly after the Surfer's battle with the Inhumans takes place--where we find a delegation from the Great Refuge contacting S.H.I.E.L.D. (which has had first-hand experience with the Surfer's apparent brand of madness) to alert Nick Fury and his organization to what they believe to be the Surfer's unprovoked aggression.

It's a decent connection to Stan Lee's prior story, though the Inhumans fail to mention that their own actions in this matter are proof that there's enough blame to go around here.

Nevertheless, the stage is set to finally explore in full the scene which closed that decades-old story--and on a calm afternoon in New York City, the Silver Surfer's newfound rage finds release, and a certain web-swinging hero finds himself the only one who can stem the loss of life.

(Efforts which will hopefully include his own!)

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Guiding Light

If you're a New York club performer with your own light show, you'd probably be flattered if an alien known in part for his aloofness toward lesser beings takes notice of you, a single mortal, out of an entire universe of mortals. (That's bound to look impressive on your bill, eh?) But as hard as it is to believe that the being known as Galactus has no desire to take in the New York disco circuit, the songstress named Dazzler discovered that Galactus's interest in her had nothing to do with her talent to work a club crowd. Tapped to retrieve his rebellious herald, Terrax, from the black hole he plunged into to escape his master, a gig that seemed perfect for someone who knows how to wield a mic, Alison Blaire succeeded in her task, and later managed to convince Galactus to spare Terrax's life before the world devourer returned her to Earth.

Six months later (our time), however, writer Danny Fingeroth decides to take his earlier story a little further in concept, as part of a What If tale--and Dazzler's "audience" with Galactus (heh, get it?) has a different outcome, both for Terrax and for herself.

We'd already seen that Galactus had shown a certain amount of not only tolerance but sympathy toward Dazzler in regard to her conscription in securing Terrax for him--but as coldly as he regards her here, it seems that he has put such concerns aside. The only other interpretation left open to us is that he's developed a sort of attachment to her (if a minimal and distant one), ignoring the sobering words of Drone R-11 on the subject. Whatever his thoughts, his reason distills down to the simple need that he has for someone to search ahead for worlds which will sustain his existence. In Dazzler, he has the vessel, and the means to compel her compliance.

And with Dazzler stepping up for the sake of the Earth, it seems Fingeroth's premise is unavoidable at this point:

(Come on, admit it--that question must have been gnawing at you for years!)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

When Calls Galactus, Cancel Your Engagements

Whatever your thoughts on the mutant performer known as Dazzler, you probably would never have considered the possibility that she might one day be sought after by...

Yes, I can guess what you're taking away from this scene:

  • Galactus is going after Dazzler, yet he's not going to be interested at all in consuming a smorgasbord like the Earth while he's there? No wonder he brags about "The will(power) of Galactus..."
  • Galactus occasionally indulges in "reviewing" a pin-up file of Earth females? The big perv...

The main takeaway of course being: Why Dazzler? Only Dazzler can help him with his dilemma? This is sounding more strange by the moment.

The true answer, however, is likely rooted in sales. Ten issues into her 1981 series, and Dazzler is running through guest-stars like a super-human version of Jimmy Fallon, and none of her guests are lightweights:

Ah, the '80s. Remember when Galactus's origin used to be pretty simple, before a revisionist or two got hold of it? This is all you really had to know:

So again, unless Dazzler's real parents are Celestials, why is she the one person in the universe (in the universe, mind you) that a being such as Galactus cannot accomplish by virtue of his own power and might? In a story plotted by Tom DeFalco and scripted by Danny Fingeroth, the answer lies with his most recent herald, Terrax the Tamer, who betrayed his master by abandoning him in favor of seeking out a world to conquer and rule, just as he did when he was Tyros the Terrible (or Tyros the Tamer, depending on which of his former cowed minions you're asking). Yet when Galactus communicated with him and ordered his return to face retribution, Terrax fled into a black hole--an environment Galactus hesitated to enter, out of concern that "the introduction of so energy-intensive a being as himself into the black hole would destroy it, and Terrax with it." Instead, Dazzler was chosen for the task because of her ability to radiate luminescent energy, allowing her to navigate the hole without causing it to self-destruct.  (Human beacon or not, I don't see an Earth vocalist being physically or mentally prepared for the extraordinary properties and effects one would encounter in the interior of a black hole, do you?)

His choice made, Galactus doesn't believe in wasting any time. After enhancing Dazzler's own natural power, he prepares her for the environment she'll be entering, and without further delay launches her toward her destination--though Galactus is not particularly concerned with this mission's outcome, or even the one risking her life to carry out his instructions.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Roger Stern Reassembles The Avengers!

While I stopped reading new comics from Marvel well before 2019, I couldn't resist the temptation to take a look at a one-shot issue published that year during the company's 80th anniversary celebration--reuniting one of its most popular super-team titles with one of its most distinguished writers, while fulfilling its anniversary obligation by dealing in the very adversary responsible for the team's creation.

By this time, over thirty-two years had passed since writer Roger Stern had left The Avengers due to a dispute with Editor Mark Gruenwald over the book's direction; and so it's perhaps understandable if this scripting assignment for the sake of commemorating a well-publicized anniversary comes across as rather belated. Jude Terror, writing for Bleeding Cool, is less tactful in his own assessment, though he makes a fair point:

"... one might be tempted to wonder how much Marvel really respects creators who helped build their universe, like Stern, or Chris Claremont, for example, when they only trot them out for one-shots like this rather than actually use their talents to create comics on a regular basis. But lofty questions like that are outside of the scope of this press release, we suppose. Besides, it's not like Marvel publishes 118 new comics in a single month or anything, so there just aren't that many slots open for the industry's legends to take up... oh, wait, they did publish exactly 118 comics in May. Hmmm. Well, beats the @#$% out of us then."

At any rate, Stern, now in his late 60s, turns in some nice work in this thirty-page tale--picking things up directly after the siege of Avengers Mansion by the Masters of Evil, as the Avengers literally begin to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Joining Stern is artist Ron Lim, who has adapted his style to reflect Marvel's across-the-board preference for character appearance that has left the work of greats like John Buscema, Neal Adams, John Romita, et al. far behind in favor of a more inviting "kid-friendly" look (there's no other way to put it)--perhaps not so much a stretch for Lim, whose style in the '80s and '90s wasn't far removed.

As we turn the page, the story opens as it did in the fall of 1963, with the scheming of Loki, the God of mischief and evil--in this case, searching for new sources of power, with his wife, Sigyn, at his side, hoping to be of help. As for the Avengers, they haven't the luxury of such diversions, having suffered a brutal battle that has gutted their mansion headquarters and left casualties in its wake--leaving four of their original members to convene and assess their situation.