Monday, September 28, 2020

World At War!

When one imagines the apocalyptic imagery of an entire world attacking the deadly, galaxy-spanning ravager known as Galactus, it usually takes the form of the planet's desperate population marshaling whatever forces it has and launching them in vain to repel a being that no conventional weapons had a prayer of stopping--in tandem with a mad rush to evacuate their planet (assuming they had the means) and escape certain death.

Of course, when it's the physical planet itself which wages that battle, even Galactus finds himself dropping his dispassionate demeanor and girding himself for a *ahem* world war.

Ego, the living planet, was described by the Rigellian Recorder thus:

While writer Stan Lee's broadly descriptive parlance is in full swing in the Recorder's assessment, the quick takeaway is that Ego is a living planet in a more literal sense, beyond the definition of a world which has the necessary conditions for life to grow and thrive. As for the fluidic Bio-verse, apparently it's a "universe" within a universe--with both the Bio-verse and Ego existing at the center of the Black Galaxy, a designation which piques one's curiosity if anything does. After all, an entire galaxy shrouded in darkness (assumedly to an even greater extent than what space itself would represent to the naked eye) and hosting a region of space composed of biological matter is bound to have one heck of an explanation for it.  For all we know, the Bio-verse fills the Black Galaxy.

Thor's dealings here with Ego come at the behest of the Rigellian Colonizers, who were willing to forego their attempted acquisition of Earth in exchange for meeting the growing (i.e., expansive) threat of the Black Galaxy. But it's another figure who demands our attention today--one whose preliminary analysis suggests that such a galaxy, with its strong readings of life energy, bears investigation.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Frightful Fours

Just how many lineups have the Frightful Four gone through in their nefarious career of frightfulness? Just a glance at one or two Wikis on the subject had your humble host deploying his boot skates and jetting away at a speed and a puff of smoke that even the Road Runner would be impressed by; but since the criminal group has survived and continued to make appearances into this decade, you can imagine how often a group which premiered in 1965 has had to shuffle its membership in order to remain viable as a criminal threat. If nothing else, their leader, the Wizard, should be recognized for his tenacity and perseverance in re-forming the Frightful Four time and again, if only to find himself and his group cuffed and headed for a stretch behind bars. (You would have thought that, by now, word would have spread through the criminal underground and in prison circles to steer clear of a perpetually losing proposition that membership in the Frightful Four has come to represent.)

Consider this, then, an informal scrapbook of the evil FF's appearances through the years*--up to around the end of 2004, which is where I finally veered off (many thanks for the loan of those skates, Mr. Stark). Feel free, of course, to make mention of those instances you don't see here--we can never have too much fright in our day, I always say. (Though considering the times we live in, perhaps that's debatable.)

*Omitted are all appearances of the "Frightful Three"--i.e., the Wizard, the Trapster, and the Sandman operating as the Frightful Four while their fourth member slot is vacant.

Naturally, we should start off with the first, and arguably the best lineup:

The Wizard, Madam Medusa, the Trapster, the Sandman
First Appearance: Fantastic Four #36, March, 1965

Monday, September 21, 2020

Dr. Strange--Disciple Of Evil!

Other than on rare occasion, you wouldn't be likely to encounter circumstances where Stephen Strange would find cause to clash with the Ancient One, the wise sorcerer who turned his life around and took him on as his disciple in the practicing of the mystic arts. Once Strange decided to abandon his arrogance and selfishness as a high-priced surgeon and open his mind to the teachings of his new mentor, he'd found a calling that offered direction and purpose, as well as a new regard for his fellow man whom he had once held in such disdain--and his devotion to the Ancient One, based in both gratitude and respect, was beyond reproach.

Yet if one were to select a point when Strange might have chosen the more expedient path to achieving all he wanted, it might have been at the time when this man was the most vulnerable--seeking out the Ancient One in the snowy mountains of Tibet, driven by the slim hope that the mystic would be able to restore his injured hands so that he could return to his medical career in America and the lifestyle to which he'd become accustomed. In our reality, the Ancient One was able to wait out his visitor's impatience and skepticism until Strange's more noble instincts finally surfaced; but a late 1979 story by Peter Gillis explores the possibility of Strange's baser instincts being exploited, instead, with the Ancient One paying the price.

And under the circumstances, the fellow pictured in the background has good reason to gloat.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Lo! The Less-Sinister Lethal Legion!

Having had occasion recently to come across a cover of an unpublished cover of The Avengers from 1970, I found myself asking the same question that usually comes to mind in such instances: What prompted the decision to re-do this cover? It's enjoyable to look at the original draft with a critical eye and put yourself in the position of the one tasked with clearing it--or not clearing it--for publication, while trying to determine what it was about the original rendering that wasn't deemed either suitable or marketable; but we can probably agree how much more interesting it would have been to have learned the actual reason straight from the source. A pity some sort of index of these types of cover substitutions was never collected in book form, complete with notes detailing just that. We could call it "How To Draw Comics Covers the Marvel Way!" :D

There are no doubt a number of such covers that for whatever reason didn't make the grade, a few of which can be found in the PPC as well as other fine comics blogs and forums. This particular Avengers cover certainly invites speculation, given that it so closely aligns with the final cover with only a few "touch-up" alterations of note.

A purely symbolic cover by artist John Buscema, of course, unless the Grim Reaper got his hands (was his scythe over in the corner?) on some of Henry Pym's shrinking gas and used it on the Avengers so they would fit in their hourglass prison. The reality is a little different:

We'll have to take the Reaper's word that his victims' gaseous prison is part of a large hourglass-shaped structure, since it resembles more of a clamped bell jar here (leaving writer Roy Thomas no choice but to account for Buscema's cover image by means of dialog)--a very cramp fit for the likes of Goliath, no doubt.

Some differences between the two covers are understandable at a glance. The hourglass itself has been altered and shifted in position somewhat, perhaps to make room for the caption at the lower right announcing the members and name of the Lethal Legion without it overlapping Quicksilver (who has enough to worry about as it is); it's also worth mentioning that in the original, at least part of the hourglass is transparent. Also, the final version of the, eh, legionnaires has them looking appropriately sinister, but noticeably less sinister than their draft counterparts. (For what it's worth, I found their appearance on the original much more eye-catching from a sales standpoint, so I can't help but be curious as to the reason why that aspect was subsequently toned down.)

In addition, the Man-Ape has been lowered a bit, presumably to prevent part of his headpiece from being obscured by the masthead (or vice versa, though there have been plenty of instances where part of a cover's masthead has been eclipsed by the artwork)--while the corner box has shuffled the Avengers around (though leaving Goliath as is) and adjusted those heads which were tilting. As for our captives, with the exception of Captain America and the Black Panther, their expressions and positioning have been altered, along with the loss of some detailing--both observations holding true for our villains, as well.

Since the basic cover concept has remained intact, it remains unclear what would warrant the decision to have Buscema make what amounts to cosmetic revisions. Do pipe in with your own thoughts on the subject if you have something to add--the Legion certainly won't mind, considering that either way they still have the Avengers where they want them! ;)

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Mission Within The Mission

With Avengers writer Roger Stern establishing his own pace for the book in 1983 as he redefined the characterization and chemistry of the team (while of course providing the adventure and action necessary for it to thrive), there was often ample time to slow that pace occasionally and allow us to peek behind the doors of the team's Fifth Avenue mansion to see the Avengers concept at work as its members conducted day-to-day business, training, and other routine matters--something we've seen to an extent in other team books, but a rare privilege in a loose-knit group such as the Avengers who lead their own lives (and, in some cases, in their own homes) while off the clock.

Yet even personal and/or private matters can draw the Avengers together, as was the case in an issue from September of that year which sees two of their members preoccupied with a sense of loss--and, as it turns out, only a villain can make things right.

By the time of this particular story, we've seen the Avengers perform their duties while attempting to cope with certain events which continue to weigh on their thoughts in one form or another. One of those episodes involves Anthony Stark, who as Iron Man has abruptly left the team without warning or explanation--though readers of Invincible Iron Man know that the reason stems from Stark's losing struggle with alcoholism. And when Captain America and the Avengers' chairwoman, the Wasp, decide to pay a call on Stark in order to get to the bottom of his recent erratic behavior, they learn first-hand the extent of Stark's difficulties--or, more to the point, his downward spiral.

With nothing left to say (at least on Stark's part), Cap and the Wasp are forced to finally accept Stark's decision and leave it at that, though seeing their friend and one of their founding members slowly destroying himself through alcohol addiction no doubt leaves them feeling despondent and helpless (as it does with many people in their position).

The Scarlet Witch is also experiencing such feelings, due to a situation created when she and the Vision, as Avengers reservists, were called in to help with a crisis involving the Fantastic Four and a strange null field emanating from the Baxter Building. If not stopped, the danger the growing field presents to the entire city is clear--but for the Vision, his own encounter with it has an immediate effect on himself, and on his wife.

Regrettably, injuries suffered by the FF and those they care for have been devastating and require all of Reed Richards' attention, forcing Wanda to keep a bedside... er, tubeside vigil as she monitors the Vision for signs of life. But each of these instances continues to have profound effect on both Cap and Wanda; and in the aftermath of damage caused by a mysterious force that would prove to be responsible for the disappearance of Reed, it's becoming apparent that something will need to be done.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations of Iron Man, 1963-1977

When it comes to design and engineering, few would argue that Tony Stark has made his mark in the field and then some, with the Iron Man armor being perhaps his crowning achievement in terms of making a noteworthy contribution to the world. Yet looking back at what such an impressive suit of armor has allowed its wearer to accomplish and achieve, Stark himself has all too often found himself to be vulnerable to its flaws and, for a considerable time, a prisoner of its principal reason to exist: to keep his injured heart from failing. Those concerns arguably stem from a central and ever-present problem with the armor that Stark has never been able to do more than address as the need arose. Put simply: How to keep his armor's power levels from being depleted to the point where his heart is put at risk?

From day one, that has been the suit's handicap, and, by extension, Stark's--a man who, for a considerable period in his life (and in his comic's life), dealt with a heart condition which required the wearing of a metal chest plate at all times in order to keep it beating.* The flip side of that situation, of course, is that this handicap provides this character's tie-in with Marvel's "heroes with problems" theme--continuing to act as Iron Man, even though a moment may come at any time when the suit's power is compromised to such a degree that Stark suffers heart failure.** Even so, constantly seeing Iron Man fretting about his dwindling power supply during a battle, or scenes of him trying to drag himself to a wall electrical socket to ward off myocardial infarction, tends to wear on a reader.

*While continuing to date beautiful women who apparently had no problem with one of the most eligible bachelors in the country oddly rebuffing attempts to place a soft head or hand against his chest, much less initiating more forward attempts at intimacy. That adds up to a lot of women comparing notes on you around town, Mr. Stark.

**As a number of you might correctly point out, there's really no drama here in that respect. Tony Stark is the book's title character, so we know he'll survive no matter how many times he collapses in agony--good fortune he shares with Aunt May, closely linked to her book's title character who, in his case, keeps his identity secret to avoid triggering a fatal heart attack in his aunt due to the shock of learning of his existence as Spider-Man.

So the question remains: Why is it that Tony Stark, design engineer extraordinaire--knowing the problem, and realizing that it's the one crack in his armor (figuratively speaking) that might one day prove to be fatal--can't plant himself in front of a drafting table and think of a way to have his cake and eat it too? I.e., use the power of Iron Man, yet isolate his heart with a dedicated and shielded power supply that won't be linked to any systems failures he might encounter in battle?

It just so happens that he was able to do exactly that--or, rather, his alternate dimension counterpart did, in a mid-1977 What If story where the original Avengers had disbanded with the Hulk's departure and Iron Man was forced to battle both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner alone when the two joined forces. Necessity, it appears, really is the mother of invention:

But though battling valiantly, the odds against Iron Man were too great, and he was seriously injured at the scene. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing his new "armored Avengers" (Henry Pym, Janet Van Dyne, and Rick Jones, who had originally turned down his call for aid) would suit up and follow Iron Man to the battle site--and with Iron Man too weak to help with acclimating to the new armor, Giant-Man fell to the Hulk and lay in danger of dying. That is, until the golden Avenger makes the decision to drain his last reserves of power to save him.

But as for our Iron Man, I thought it might prove interesting to take the first 100 issues of the character's first series (including his Tales Of Suspense stories) and track the number of instances when Stark was forced or otherwise felt the need to redesign his armored suit in order to resolve certain problems or adapt to a particular set of circumstances. Several of those situations, it goes without saying, were based on his heart condition, which cleared a significant hurdle in 1973 when Stark found his heart had adapted to the synthetic tissue used to repair the organ during his operation in late 1969. Yet that wouldn't be the end of his problems in that regard, as we'll see.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

...In The Cause Of Death!

The universe is in deadly danger! The shadowy hand of the being known as Infinity extends its grip across the stars to engulf world after world, causing them to disappear into its Stygian darkness where their inhabitants are drained of their collective will and exist from that point to serve the one who holds them helpless. Made aware of the dire threat from the halls of Asgard, omnipotent Odin has travelled to the World Beyond to probe the secret of Infinity, but now battles for his immortal life--even as his son, Thor, having no recourse but to part with his mystic hammer in order to save his comrades, is forced to transform once more to his mortal form of Dr. Donald Blake and watch in horror as the servant of Infinity named the Guardian approaches to slay him!

"What to do?"--the question each of these men must ask themselves as they both face a moment of crisis. Blake dares not retreat from where he stands, since his hammer will descend to that very spot once it returns from its task, and changing back to Thor is his only chance to survive... but will it arrive too late? As for Odin, aware of his son's danger, he dares not turn his attention from battling a deadly foe who appears to be more than his equal, even for the moments it would take to save the Thunder God.

It seems that Odin has made his choice--and with the Guardian within arms' (and arms') reach of Blake, not a moment too soon!