Thursday, October 29, 2020

The X-Men Review Heard 'Round The Newsgroup!


Comics readers who were just getting their feet wet with the Internet as early as the late 1980s and early 1990s may well recall its popular discussion forum, Usenet, which actually had its beginning several years prior but hit its stride when its "newsgroups" were embraced and expanded upon as more and more of the general public found their way onto "the World Wide Web." In time, those groups would migrate to various websites which continue to host them; but until then, they managed to thrive in all their no-frills Unix glory--screens and screens of unformatted text on your monitor, vibrant and active with the wit and thoughts of countless contributors who took an interest in any of the wide variety of categories and topics one could choose from.

Depending on how prolific you were in your writing and how engaged you were in this medium, a benefit of browsing through Usenet newsgroups was encountering those who stood out in this unique crowd and became anchors of a sort in whatever sub-categories you frequented in Usenet's many-branched tree. One of those individuals whose entries I often enjoyed during that time was David R. Henry, a man then in his late 20s (about ten years younger than myself) who originated the "xbooks" group embedded in alt.rec.arts.comics (an example of the tree-like nomenclature of newsgroups) and whose comics reviews were frank, sarcastic, incisive, and delightfully riveting, while at times unsparing in his blunt observations when warranted. In the case of Marvel Comics, the stories that were churned out in the mid-'90s were arguably deserving of that bluntness, the company's financially floundering ship seemingly rudderless in terms of the questionable quality of its stories produced during this time.

Yet rather than damning, Henry included a combination of sarcasm and humor to make his points--good ones, at that--and more often than not you would find that those points were often right on target. Below, you'll get a chance to determine that for yourself concerning one particular X-Men issue: Henry's review of X-Men Unlimited #4 from March 1994, an article in my memories now for over 25 years and of course by this time reproduced in a number of outlets on the web. Only this time, you'll find included selected images from the issue, which were not allowed in the original postings of Usenet but which will serve here to highlight Henry's descriptions of the story's content. (Though I believe you'll agree that Henry's adeptness in that regard is far from lacking!)

Going in, you might also bear in mind that, until companies such as AOL, CompuServe, et al. came along and offered their own forums (to say nothing of third-party message boards), Usenet's newsgroups were the go-to destination for online discourse by not only those who sought a niche in which to air their opinions, but also those who were the very talent behind the books, shows, and films that were being bandied back and forth in postings. As such, there was good reason for these newsgroups to establish a character or line limit to individual posts, since many users hadn't yet found the value of brevity in their writings. Such will prove to be the case with Henry's mixture of diatribe and humor here, which, as many of us can attest to from our own writings from our 20s, had yet to evolve to a more concise approach.

Yet Henry's article is quite a read as is*--and overall, hopefully an enjoyable one which provides a glimpse of what it may have been like to be a Marvel reader in 1994, come hell or high water.

*A few minor misspellings have been corrected.

X-Men Unlimited #4

"Theories of Relativity"

Writer: Scott Lobdell, blowing his good will to pieces
Pencils: Richard Bennett
Inks: Steve Moncuse
Colors: Glynis Oliver, a ray of hope in the darkness
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Kelly Coverse, under BOB/Tom

I am really getting tired of stupid villains.

That may seem like a strange thing to say in a X-Man newsgroup. Because, yeah, I know -- this isn't Cerebus. This isn't Grendel. This isn't some high-falutin' alternative rant on the power structure of the dispossessed. It's a superhero comic, dealing with bad guys with silly names parading around in capes and being beat senseless by strong-jawed good guys. Okay, fine, I accept that. When I read a X-Man comic, even though I know it could be more, I know the current target ideal for Marvel isn't the high standards of Sandman, or From Hell, or what have you. It's to provide a little bit of social commentary disguised as a rousing conflict between Evil and Good. Fine. Accepted.

With all of that, nothing of the above automatically disqualifies any of these minor, inconvenient plot points:

--Believable characterization

--Lucid plots

--Intelligent villains played intelligently (dumb ones should be dumb, of course, but just perhaps we should be able to tell the difference, right?)

--Good storytelling.

There. All I ask for from any story, be it a campfire ghostly-ghoulie, a comic book, a movie, or what have you. Those four things. Actually, just the last thing. The others are the candy that shapes the cake, if you will. The force behind the hammer. The columns under the roof. And so on.

Now we come to X-Men Unlimited #4.

[pause while there is a deep, weeping intake of breath]

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Cry Dentist!


A few weeks ago, alert PPC reader M.P. made an interesting observation of how artists will at times exaggerate a villain's facial features, specifically their mouths and teeth (as seen in a related post).

Well, you didn't expect me to leave a carrot like that dangling in front of me, did you?

Or, as Captain Axis might put it:

Monday, October 19, 2020

The New Fantastic Four!


OR: "Enter... Wonder Wizard!"

If you were one of those readers who knew of the inventive genius of the Wizard mostly from his attempts to defeat the Human Torch, you were likely taken aback by the makeover he received in both costume and a greater emphasis on his anti-grav technology when he assumed a new role as the leader of the Frightful Four. But once the original lineup of "the evil F.F." had run its course, you probably found yourself equally surprised when the Wizard, courtesy of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, finally made it into the big leagues as a super-villain in his own right--and all because of a pair of "wondrous" gloves which made him a match for the entire Fantastic Four.

At least that's what we're left to assume at first glance, given that the Wizard doesn't exactly put his gloves through a gamut of testing here in his lab before taking off for the Baxter Building (though now being able to down the Thing with one punch goes a long way towards instilling confidence). But when the Wizard reaches his foes, he indeed makes an impressive showing of his gloves' offensive and defensive capabilities, while having the good fortune of catching the team while two of its members are indisposed--nor does Reed Richards help the situation by overlooking an entry point in their roof that it seems anyone can just slip through without triggering a single alarm.

Describing the Wizard as a powerhouse is a fair assessment at this point, having successfully carried out his attack against the FF and poised to deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce. But the Torch, rejoining the fight, goes on to maneuver his foe into dropping into a giant centrifuge tank which renders him unconscious, long enough to nullify his threat by removing his multi-powered gloves. Unfortunately, the Torch stops short of securing the Wizard for captivity--and he leaves as unhindered as he arrived.

Having taken the FF's measure, the Wizard remains free to fight another day--but by the time he returns, the FF will have restored their ranks in a historic issue that sees the team induct their first replacement!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Voice Of Freedom!

Any Fantastic Four reader who's familiar with the Great Refuge of the Inhumans more than likely knows of the Great Barrier, the impenetrable dome which covered the Refuge shortly after their discovery by the FF and essentially imprisoned their entire population thanks to a last-ditch power play by Maximus, the mad (and power-mad) brother of their ruler, Black Bolt. Fortunately, the Fantastic Four were able to destroy the barrier, and...

...what's that, you say? What do you mean the FF had nothing to do with the barrier's destruction? Would you believe it if you heard it straight from Mr. Fantastic himself, while on a later mission to the Refuge?

Now what do you say, scoffers?

All kidding aside, yes, regrettably we all must beg to differ with Reed and tell the man that he may have developed a touch of senility he's dead wrong on this point. (Keep in mind that this is also the same man who claimed it was newspaper reporters who gave him the name of "Mr. Fantastic.") We also should THWAP both the Thing and the Torch for keeping mum on the subject and not calling the mistake to his attention, though they were in a hurry to rescue Johnny's girlfriend, Crystal, and probably didn't want to see Reed go into one of his long-winded explanations. As we've seen, the FF were far from the Himalayas at the time of the barrier's destruction, fighting for their lives in the vicinity of Latveria.

But for what it's worth, there were several people who were working on the problem of bringing down the barrier, Reed included--and in a brief recap of the year's worth of scenes between 1966 and 1967 which detailed those efforts, we'll see who tried, who failed, and who finally succeeded in freeing the Inhumans so they could take their first steps toward rejoining the human race.

Though that story's climactic cover gives us a good idea of who finally did the deed.
(And it wasn't your group, Reed!)

Monday, October 12, 2020

"Revenge!" Cries The Master Of Sound!

Following the defeat of Klaw, the Master of Sound, in his attempt to take control of Wakanda's Vibranium mound by using his sound conversion technology to create monstrous creatures made of pure sound, the villain was presumed killed in a subsequent explosion by the Black Panther and his allies, the Fantastic Four. But, swearing vengeance against the Panther, Klaw found a key piece of equipment still functioning, and took a risk that would hopefully bring him one step closer to that goal--something we learn  more of during an attack on the Invisible Girl by Klaw, who enters in a startling new form.

Curiously, rather than seeking out the Panther while still in Wakanda, Klaw has instead made tracks for America and New York, where he hoped to lure the Panther into a trap by holding Sue Richards hostage (which was quite the pastime among evil-doers). Confronted by Klaw's enhanced abilities, Sue faces a fight-or-flight situation, to be sure (which ends rather humiliatingly); suffice to say, she believes she's in over her head, and does her best to reach her two partners.

But Klaw appears to have all the angles covered, having already isolated the Thing and Mr. Fantastic--and though he wasn't deemed enough of a draw to grace an FF cover in his prior appearance, he certainly rates cover exposure now. (As well as a looming presence on a splash page that's a virtual carbon copy!)

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Life Is Anything But A Dream

There have no doubt been any number of incidental characters in comics stories who were introduced to bring focus to either the lives of the more central characters or a plot slowly building to a crisis, while at times both conditions would apply. Such was the case in 1965 with a young man named Thomas Gideon, who got the short end of the stick by having the misfortune of being the son of Gregory Gideon, a man obsessed with the acquisition of both money and power to the detriment of having any substantive relationship with his family. Gideon's impatience, however, made him his own worst enemy--and to fast track that acquisition, he made a deal with his competitors to bring about the defeat of the Fantastic Four, a goal which only widened the rift between himself and those closest to him.

In the end, of course, the tables were turned on Gideon, who swore to make restitution as well as renounce his fortune in order to begin making amends to his family. But a tragic incident would effectively rescind his change of heart, and turn his attention toward preserving the lives of both himself and his son--and if that led to the acquisition of supreme power for himself, so much the better.

Yet this time, Gideon's plans met with not only defeat, but death--leaving Thomas an orphan in 1973, in the temporary care of those who had given his father the second chance that he squandered.

However, the FF were caught up in a bizarre twist of reality initiated by Slugger Johnson, one of Gideon's henchmen, with the help of the alien known as the Shaper of Worlds. Once the FF prevailed, the Shaper made provisions for dealing with the man from whose mind sprung the "dream"--while also turning his attention to the fate of Thomas.

And, strictly speaking, Thomas indeed returned to reality, as the Shaper promised--but while that return would occur in only two years' time, it would take roughly a decade for you and I to be made aware of it.

Which signals the return of yet another

Marvel Trivia Question

Whatever happened to Thomas Gideon?

Monday, October 5, 2020

What's green, immensely strong, leaps, and wears ripped purple pants? Don't ask the Eternals...

During his second and final stay at Marvel Comics from mid-1976 to early 1978, Jack Kirby took on a number of creative projects of which he assumed control as both artist and writer, while choosing to distance his work from any connection to Marvel's "universe" of characters--with the exception of assuming the reins of the existing Captain America book as well as beginning a new Black Panther series, while allowing the former to make use of the Falcon, Leila Taylor, Sharon Carter, Magneto, the Red Skull, and the trappings of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Yet though Cap readers might disagree with me, it may have been Kirby's work on The Eternals which garnered the most attention--an imaginative fresh take on human evolution, featuring a new race of super-powered immortals with names fashioned after the Olympians as well as an enigmatic race of space gods that left an indelible mark on ancient Earth.

Having still been involved in comics collecting at the time, I'd bitten the bullet and picked up Kirby's Cap and Black Panther books, knowing going in that both would be difficult reads due to Kirby's dated writing style that hearkened back to his own memories of what comics were like and what comics should always be like--but I steered clear of Machine Man and certainly Devil Dinosaur, while being content with the Eternals I remembered from the pages of Fantastic Four. Over time, however, thanks to their appearances in other books, I've become more familiar with the Eternals and the rich backstory which Kirby provided for them as they gradually became more integrated with Marvel's characters and continuity during the 1980s, now free from Kirby's segregation.

And so I can imagine how surprised readers of The Eternals in 1977 must have been to see one of Marvel's most visible headliners appear and be acknowledged in a book that would normally have kept him and others of his number at bay.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Elegy For Johnny Storm

Researching for a comics blog tends to take you all over the place in terms of getting the details right, but, given the general time frame of posts appearing in the PPC, it's a rare day when I'll find myself flipping through stories that are dated in the years following 2010, well after the point that I'd stopped collecting comics or even browsing new stories on the racks. Yet I recall a mental note I made following a previous post that attempted to piece together the reboots and refits of Fantastic Four that took place during the years between the mid-1990s through 2014, before the book began an indefinite hiatus--with one of those refits taking the form of the Future Foundation, established following the death of the Human Torch. It was at that point that I stumbled across an issue featuring an informal wake at which the remaining team members, along with Spider-Man, shared reminiscences of Johnny Storm--a story that I could only give a cursory glance to at the time, but which I intended to revisit, given the closure it was meant to provide (as well as the pivotal groundwork it laid for a certain wall-crawler).

Yet now well after the fact, you may find like myself that it's also held up well as a story of affirmation for the FF, even if taking place in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man. A story aptly titled: