Monday, August 31, 2020

Worlds Will Fall To... The World Beyond!

Having spent nine years (!) writing the continuous adventures of Thor in Journey Into Mystery, Mighty Thor, fifteen issues of The Avengers, and numerous guest appearances, Stan Lee would relinquish the reins on Thor's solo series by recycling a previous plot of Loki getting his hands on the Odin-ring (you'd think Odin would learn to avoid leaving his you-can-rule-Asgard-with-this-ring jewelry just lying around) into a new story that would be wrapped up by Gerry Conway. Yet just before reaching that point, at the beginning of 1971, Lee and artist John Buscema would turn in some noteworthy work on a five-part epic that featured a well-conceived plot that appeared to have everything a Thor reader could ask: a looming and ominous threat to the entire universe... a seemingly hopeless cause... the Goddess of Death... a mysterious new character... the approaching doom of Ragnarok... a siege on Asgard from Loki... a surprising twist on the story's main villain... and the end of life on planet Earth--all for the bargain price of 15¢ a copy, which worked out to 75¢ for the entire story. Think of what you're paying today for a single issue, and the budding Bronze Age of comics publishing looked pretty good, eh?

As for the nature of this threat--Thor, summoned back to Asgard, receives the grim news from Odin himself of the danger which the realm now suddenly faces. Harbingers of doom which appear to emanate from an indistinct... region? place? planet? ... known as the World Beyond.

(You may have noticed that Thor doesn't look so "unarmed" here. What's Mr. Caption up to?)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A World For The Taking!

As if we humans don't have enough to worry about from preying on each other, whether in brutal war or heinous criminal acts, humans in the fictional world of comic books were subject to attack and slaughter by primeval forces that regarded primitive man as no more than indigenous beasts to be subjugated and abused or killed without regard. It seems ancient Earth was very popular with malevolent beings that paid little to no heed to their treatment of humans and whose rule of the Earth would last for ages, eons, millennia, or whatever lengthy term suited the story's writer. Given such a vast time span, you would think the ruling periods of one or two of these despotic entities would have overlapped, resulting in a turf war that would have laid waste to the world and its unfortunate inhabitants--nor do we ever seem to learn of such horrific times from historical tomes, but rather from the vile creatures themselves who somehow manage to return with the intention of picking up where they left off.

Following you'll find a brief PPC overview on the subject, in no particular chronology or preference. You'll note certain omissions that didn't strictly conform to the topic (with one exception)--e.g., evolutionary tinkerers such as the Celestials, the Kree, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, et al., as well as latter-day threats along the lines of Belasco, Kulan Gath, the Serpent Men, and others acting on behalf of their masters. Nevertheless, do chime in if you feel there is a party that should be represented here--I'm definitely not up on all of the ancient horrors that tried to stake their claim on our world back in the day... er, eon. ;)

Though speaking of the Celestials, we can start with one of their discarded failures, the Deviants, who went on to conquer the entire world and enslave mankind for the duration.

Again, word of the ark has been passed down--but nothing about a race of misshapen monsters that kept humans as slaves and ruled in tyranny for centuries? How does something like that slip through the cracks?

Then we have Chthon, one of the Earth spirits who wasn't content to "step down" from an active role as did his sister, Gaea, but instead scripted one of the most evil grimoires in existence, the Darkhold, to pave the way for his return. Chthon, unlike the others we'll see listed here, didn't so much as gain a foothold on our world but, like Dormammu, didn't want for lack of trying.

We have Chthon to thank for vampires, werewolves and the like--as well as for the N'Garai, our next entry:

As we can see, creatures such as the N'Garai had many thralls such as Kierrok to act in their interests. And while the individual known as Psyklop acted to appease the so-called "Dark Gods," it turns out that Psyklop's race also had advanced to the point of ruling the Earth in ancient times.

And let's not forget about the Undying Ones, who ruled the Earth for "unnumbered ages" under the control of their master, the Nameless One:

Earth also fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the vanguard of a race which ruled the Earth for an indeterminate length of time until they were vanquished in a 100-year war by another race that presumably took their place as the planet's rulers.

(That's a lot of mushroom clouds going off on ancient Earth. You would think one of them would be noted in a scroll or two somewhere.)

Which brings us to the last of our tyrannical abominations, this one eventually slithering its way into New York City:

Before ripping into present-day Times Square, however, Shuma-Gorath was lording it over prehistoric man, before the time traveler known as Sise-Neg dealt it a setback.

It's a wonder that you and I are even here to talk about all of this, given the number of times the human race has been decimated by those creatures who held our species collectively under their thumb (or what passed for a thumb) over the ages. It's also a testament to the resiliency of the Earth itself, having weathered cataclysm after cataclysm and no doubt giving Gaea cause to yearn for a long vacation. Somehow the Inhumans, who were present during prehistoric times, managed to isolate themselves from these conflicts, when you'd think their advanced race would have been a prime target for the Deviants and most of the others listed here (we could say the same for the Eternals); surely their historical records would have complete accounts of global conflicts which occurred on the scale of what we've only seen here in glimpses.  Then again, perhaps we humans are better off not fully knowing the grim travails suffered by our unfortunate ancestors.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Childhood, Interrupted

For a while during the 1970s and into the '80s, it seemed the odds were going to be stacked against Franklin Richards, the son of Sue and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, no matter how many readers might have been pulling for him even going back to the difficult circumstances of his birth. As if his life weren't going to be harrowing enough being the vulnerable child of a couple who had difficulty protecting him from the frequent dangers they faced with their team, there were his mutant abilities to contend with--powers that were both unpredictable as to their emergence and potentially dangerous to the entire world should they be fully unleashed. Such a crisis arrived in late 1973, when his father was forced to "shut down" his son's mind by use of a defective anti-matter weapon before disaster occurred (which, if you were to ask anyone who witnessed the scene, surely qualified as a disaster in itself), an incident that led to all the members of the FF separating for a time until reconciliation between Reed and Sue eventually took place.

If we backtrack a bit to the point when Franklin was still a toddler, we see that whatever ambivalence either Stan Lee or Roy Thomas felt in terms of what direction to take Franklin in ceased when writer Gerry Conway began his run on Fantastic Four and began laying that decision's groundwork in mid-1973, shortly after Reed and Sue separated following the FF's battle with the new Frightful Four. Sue, with Franklin, retreats to a farm owned by friends in Pennsylvania--and we glimpse a portent of things to come.

It's later that year when Annihilus's tampering with Franklin's power leads to Reed's desperate action, after which Franklin fell into a coma--a condition that lasts for just over a year until another crisis, in the form of the return of Ultron, serves as the catalyst that returns Franklin to consciousness, and normalcy.

It's an ending to the situation virtually wrapped up with a bow, given that Conway leaves the FF title shortly thereafter. Roy Thomas, taking the reins of the book from that point, seems content to leave well enough alone vis-à-vis Franklin, when he touches base on the subject in 1976:

(As we know in hindsight, Sue's traumatic encounter with Psycho-Man nine years later would have her dispensing with her objections here to updating her FF name.)

Thomas's sentiments are not at all shared by Marv Wolfman in the 1980 FF Annual, however, as we see Franklin's abilities re-emerge during a conflict with Nicholas Scratch and Salem's Seven.

From that point, Reed and Sue appear resolved to the fact that Franklin's powers are still present and warrant keeping an eye on, though they essentially leave it at that while making sure they're there for him as loving parents while keeping a watch-and-wait attitude. (Under the circumstances, I might have sought out consultation from Charles Xavier, but what do I know.)

During Doug Moench's time on the book in 1980, passing reference is made to Franklin's still-dormant power, though mostly as a lead-in to another conflict with Scratch:

Nearly two years later, artist/writer John Byrne sees an opportunity to open the door a little further and again bring to the fore concerns about Franklin's mysterious power. And while not having the scope of Conway's treatment on the subject, Byrne's self-contained crisis here serves as an example of how to craft a dramatic story involving the power of Franklin Richards without necessitating that a future writer take it into account. Turning the page, we find such a story suitably beginning with Franklin's parents, still keeping a watchful eye on their son but preferring not to wait until a sudden development that might prove harmful but instead taking precautionary measures. And while Reed is no Charles Xavier, his own methods prove to be uniquely suited to both his inventiveness and the care of his son.

Though Reed may have been hasty to label this unit as a babysitter, considering that finding a traditional babysitter is still a concern when everyone heads out for the evening. Fortunately, no human sitter is present for what occurs next.

We can only wonder what Wally and the Beav would do in this situation.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

"The Final Victory Of Dr. Doom!"

With the successful launch of the first Fantastic Four annual in 1963, FF readers were no doubt looking forward to seeing Marvel deliver on another annual the following year. Needless to say, the company did just that, this time featuring a foe that had become one of the book's most popular characters--Dr. Doom, having appeared in six out of thirty issues thus far (as well as an issue of Amazing Spider-Man) and who had informally been elevated to the status of the FF's de facto arch-nemesis.

The '64 annual has a number of things going for it in terms of content (which includes additions to the Fantastic Four rogues gallery), not the least of which is significantly expanding on Doom's character and providing him with more depth than that of the standard two-dimensional villain we'd seen thus far whose main draw was as a rival to the brilliance of Reed Richards. In fact, readers had the opportunity in this issue to observe the contrast in Doom's evolution for themselves, since for the annual to reach its advertised length of 72 pages it was necessary to supplement its 48 pages of new material with filler--in this case, a reprint of Fantastic Four #5, "Prisoners of Doctor Doom!", a story that introduced Doom to the title as little more than a "sinister genius," and villainy and only villainy appears to compel him. Leading off the annual, however, is a prelude to the main FF tale in the form of Doom's origin story, where Doom is given a rich history full of tragedy, mystery, royal bearing, and ominous foreshadowing (as opposed to the abridged version of his origin appearing in the aforementioned issue #5). Add to that his continued dealings with the Fantastic Four and his drive to achieve world domination, and this armored "menace" transforms before our eyes into a complicated figure whose madness and cruelty are always on a hair trigger.

There are a number of takeaways from Doom's origin which will be familiar sights to a number of you and which serve to encompass the new "Victor Von Doom" we meet here. A boy shaped by the hardships of himself and his people and the tragic loss of his parents... the young man who met Reed Richards as a fellow student at State University... the broken man created from an experiment gone wrong... a journey to the mountains of Tibet where he would meet his destiny... the observance of a lonely, solemn ritual to his mother's grave.

As we've seen, the backdrop of the story also contains an intriguing addition to Doom's profile: the fact that he rules the small kingdom of Latveria nestled in the Bavarian alps in Germany, information that the FF remain unaware of but which they'll discover in the annual's main story.

But while this annual's cover adds to the "Doom looms" series of issue covers and focuses the spotlight on their armored foe, it wouldn't be an FF annual without the Fantastic Four taking front and center on their own splash page (albeit in an embarrassing situation)--yet even so, you'd almost expect Dr. Doom to insinuate himself onto page one, wouldn't you?

As in other instances where the team's Fantasti-Car has demonstrated a knack for suddenly finding itself in a crash scenario, the FF somehow make it out of this situation intact (though we'd see that the Thing isn't exactly the most ideal member to placate their fellow New Yorkers). But once the four have extricated themselves from the regrettable situation and made tracks for their headquarters, the story refocuses our attention once more on Doom, who finds himself being rescued from almost certain death following his last encounter with the team and compelled to take part in a momentous meeting.

And so, returning to Earth, and making his way to the Latverian embassy in New York, Doom begins a covert scheme which he believes will secure him the victory he craves--which may well succeed, as it depends on continuing to keep the FF in the dark as to his status as a monarch. Curiously, however, his plan involves drugging his foes and having them attack each other, based on hallucinations that have them thinking the worst of one another--not the approach you'd expect from a man you'd think would want to crush the FF personally, but perhaps a plan he can rationalize by chalking its success up to his genius.

Granted, it's a flimsy plan for someone of Doom's caliber to conceive--banking so much on the assumption that the members of the FF will destroy each other because of little more than bruised feelings (with Reed not even under the drug's influence).

Yet on the verge of Doom's "triumph" here, he unknowingly sabotages his own plan by obsessing once more with memories he's struggled to keep buried, and which give him a sense of futility in pursuing plans of conquest when his iron mask must remain in place forever in order to conceal his disfigurement. But even Dr. Doom can find himself vulnerable to hope, much to his regret.

His plan undone, and getting a grip on himself, Doom withdraws and turns to a more aggressive posture in battling his enemies--arrogantly challenging them in their own headquarters, and a fight to the finish!

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Tale Of Two Ragnaroks

If you're a longtime Mighty Thor reader, you've been witness on more than one occasion to the Asgardians having to deal with the coming of Ragnarok--the prophesied twilight of the gods when their world will end in savage conflict and conflagration. In every instance, the Asgardians have managed to survive their foretold doom (even the genuine Ragnarok); but there was nevertheless a time when the threat of world's end hung heavy over their realm and their very existence, a day of destruction which Odin himself thought it best to draw back the curtain on and bring perspective to in order to strip away the pall of doom associated with it, which up until that point had the Asgardians collectively on edge and often feeling as if they were walking on egg shells.

To accomplish what he had in mind, Odin would make use of his seer, Volla, bequeathed by the All-Father with the gift of prophecy, to reveal to all of Asgard's warriors visions of the future which would leave no doubt as to the coming of Ragnarok, yet also have them come away with more than just the inevitability of the cataclysm that would result in their deaths. Curiously, that story by writer Stan Lee would be chronicled in Mighty Thor not just once but twice--first, in 1966, with artists Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta, and again six years later with John Buscema and John Verpoorten. Both stories are essentially the same--though both Kirby and Buscema would naturally offer different interpretations of Asgard's fate, which is something of a treat for readers.

Unfortunately, Odin being Odin, there is deception on his part at work in the Lee/Kirby story--first, to open the door to the looming threat:

...followed by Thor and Loki, along with a hand-picked group of warriors, being sent on an expedition to find "the forces of evil" which are responsible for the alarming damage to the Odinsword of Asgard, which, if left unchecked, could bring about the end of everything.

Yet the expedition is nothing more than a wild goose chase conceived by Odin*, a "quest" to assuage warriors who had fallen into fighting among themselves out of boredom (only in Asgard, folks), as Thor finally recognizes: "We had been too long without battle--too long without purpose! Our tempers were frayed--our sword edges blunted!" And so when Odin feels that goal had been accomplished, the men are recalled, to join those assembled in order to hear the dreaded and dire words of Volla--words and, for us, images which will reveal a day when even immortals will perish!