Monday, March 29, 2021

"And The Wind Howls... Wendigo!"


For a mythical creature, the tale of the Wendigo as told by Marvel Comics proved to be something of a success story in regard to its three individual yet connecting parts which spanned from 1973 to 1980, with Part 3 finally bringing closure to the core characters who became entwined in the horrific circumstances of the monster's creation. In Part 1, we learned of a doomed hunting party made up of Paul Cartier, Henri Cluzot, and Georges Baptiste, who were attacked by wolves (you brought your guns on this hunting trip, didn't you, fellas?) and sought refuge in a cave, where Cluzot, mortally wounded, soon died. Having lost their supplies, and with the threat of the wolves keeping them there (no, I don't know what kept the wolves from entering the cave), Cartier and Baptiste were slowly starving to death--until, on the fourth day, Baptiste awoke to find that Cartier had succumbed to cannibalism with Cluzot's corpse. That, in turn, triggered the curse of the Wendigo, as Baptiste became witness to Paul Cartier transforming before his eyes into the woodsbeast.

With Baptiste weaponless and weak from hunger, he became easy prey for the Wendigo, who took him by force out of the cave and into the woods, where the creature eventually stopped to sleep--trapping Baptiste underneath it, still alive, but his moments numbered until the Wendigo would become hungry and finally feast. Only the timely arrival of the Hulk on the scene saved the man's life--and from there, the Hulk returned Baptiste to the camp of Cartier's sister, Marie, who learned from Baptiste of her brother's horrid fate.

At that point, the story had the ingredients to build on itself and become, in essence, a trilogy. Part 1 ends with the Hulk attempting, and failing, to save Paul Cartier's quickly fading intelligence from being supplanted by the bestial instincts and cravings of the Wendigo; yet the story continues with the return of Marie Cartier, with Georges Baptiste at her side--a woman who is determined to return her lost brother to life, by dooming the one she has selected to take on the Wendigo's cursed existence instead.

The fact that Baptiste stresses that he's not helping Marie out of any sense of debt to her is a welcome touch to this scene, since it places the burden of guilt for her plan where it belongs: the troubled character of Marie herself, and the lengths she's willing to go to in order to bring her brother back. The fact that Paul wanted to be a doctor makes the man no saint, nor is it relevant since Cluzot had been dead when Paul resorted to cannibalism; in addition, Baptiste certainly wasn't responsible for dragging Paul along on a hunting trip, or for the wolf attack which drove the group into a cave from which there was no escape.

It probably goes without saying that Marie has chosen the Hulk to be the vessel that will take on the curse of the Wendigo and thus free her brother from its form. But in this two-part installment of the story, there will be another figure who will play a part in this drama, in his first Marvel appearance--a figure who, if he succeeds in his mission, will unknowingly deprive Marie of the unwitting help of the Hulk, and the Hulk of his existence!


Thursday, March 25, 2021

This Power Denied!


At the close of 1969, Captain America's life was changed dramatically, about as dramatically as anyone could change it given the opportunity and the means. In this case, that person turned out to be the Red Skull, who recovered the Cosmic Cube after losing it during a pitched battle with his foe and used its power to switch their bodies--and to "cap" his revenge, the Skull moves in on Steve Rogers' love interest, Sharon Carter, as the real Cap realizes that his situation has become practically hopeless.

His plan in motion, the Skull amuses himself by milking his newfound status as Captain America while using the Cube to monitor the movements of the real Cap, who makes his way to Avengers Mansion in an attempt to convince his teammates of his bona fides and secure their help; but, distrusted and doubted from the beginning, the attempt fails, and the pseudo Skull is rendered unconscious as the Avengers leave to respond to a S.H.I.E.L.D. alert.

It's then that the Skull decides to add another level of peril to Cap's struggle, by transporting him to the island of the Exiles--former allies of the Skull who now wish vengeance on him, and will attack him on sight. But after Cap's initial clash with the group upon arrival, he later discards the Skull's mask so that he'll hopefully be unrecognizable to them, while further disguising his features as a precaution. In addition, this would turn out to be the moment when Cap meets Sam Wilson*, a former hireling of the Exiles, whom Cap begins to train in hand-to-hand fighting in order to become a symbol to the natives that Sam has begun to organize and band together to rebel against the Exiles.

*Both Sam and the reader have yet to learn of his identity as "Snap Wilson"--that his past as he remembers it is a sham, and that he's been manipulated by the Skull into being a sleeper agent for use at some future point against Cap.

Clearly the Skull, who holds the power to obliterate Cap with a thought, wishes to savor his revenge, with the goal of crushing Cap's indomitable spirit; but his patience becomes exhausted when both Cap and the Falcon are successful in motivating the natives to rise up against the Exiles, a development which infuriates the Skull and forces him to finally take a personal hand against his enemy. To that end, he abruptly changes the venue for himself and his foes--and the endgame of this drama finally begins.

(Of course the issue's cover might render the moment anticlimactic! Maybe the Skull just tripped?)

Monday, March 22, 2021

"Spawn Of The Flesh-Eater!"


It's Spring, 1973--and while your humble host was finishing up his sophomore year in high school, two of Marvel's super-heroes were showing up in the frigid climes of Canada, though for entirely separate reasons. In addition, there was another character who would encounter them both, an individual less super but formidable in his own right--Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who sought and received permission to enter the country in order to conduct an operation which would take down the mightiest mortal on the face of the Earth!

Meanwhile, Peter Parker, whom you and I know as the amazing Spider-Man, has travelled to Montreal to investigate a matter involving his Aunt May--and in a press conference which Peter drops in on, we find that Ross appears to have a different motive for coming after the Hulk than any concern for our Canuck neighbors.

While Ross has certainly had his reasons for wanting to wipe the Hulk from existence on more than one occasion, in this instance his ire is mostly due to his efforts to keep his daughter, Betty, in the dark as to the Hulk having recently been discovered to be alive after being presumed dead for a time. In that interim, Betty, after pining so long for Bruce Banner, had finally decided to accept the hand of Maj. Glenn Talbot in marriage--which helps to explain Ross's almost frantic efforts to, ah, remove the Hulk before Betty learns that Banner is still among the living. (And I can guess what you're thinking: Maybe Ross should have thought through the fact that holding a press conference on his hunt for the Hulk wasn't the best way to go about that.)

You'll find the PPC's rundown on Spidey's subsequent tangling with the Hulk in a prior post. But as for the Hulk--well, thanks to Ross conscripting the Abomination to take out the Hulk only to have his monstrous pawn double-cross him and spill the beans to the Hulk on Betty's marriage, the green goliath made tracks for Niagara Falls, where he ran into Tiger Shark, followed by his arrival in the Canadian southland where he became involved in a struggle with the Beast who was working to save the life of Cal Rankin, the Mimic. And now, as the Hulk struggles to think of how to find Betty while lost in whatever province of Canada he's ended up in, he'll find himself crossing paths for the first time with a dangerous creature out of Canadian folklore which, unfortunately for the Hulk, is no myth but is instead frighteningly real!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Should Auld Connections Be Forgot


Though it may have been the only thing to be done in order for Marvel Comics to continue in the 21st century to make their 20th century characters the foundation of their publishing business, it's regrettable to some degree that the company was forced to free itself from the constraints of continuity and simply insert their characters in stories that exercised only a modicum of familiarity with past behavior and history. In a way, it could be said that they were jettisoning one set of constraints only to be bound by others--for while many character origins had been revised to avoid being hamstrung by untenable connections to previous points in history, there are a number of scenes which can no longer be drawn on to help define the makeup of those classic characters who are still having adventures five decades after their introduction.

All things considered, I'd imagine such concerns are trivial matters to the Marvel of today, given the juggernaut success of their films and streaming content that help to sustain and are in part sustained by their print material--and certainly, there's enough present-day domestic and global conflict to keep Marvel's writers busy with character-building moments. Yet there are certain scenes and connections which are no longer feasible--particularly for characters like Captain America, who, regardless of what time period he was reawakened in, is locked into World War II as the time in which he originally fought and became a legend. And with it now being over 75 years later, there are few to no instances left for him to be provided with story material that allows him to interact with those friends and comrades who were also alive during that brutal time in history--meetings that resonate with the heroism of those who, unlike Cap, had to resign themselves to death.

For example, one such battle awaited Lord Montgomery Falsworth, who fought in the war as Union Jack and who must do what little he can to stop the killing spree of his brother, the man known as Baron Blood. In spite of Cap's urging to leave this fight to those better suited to it, Falsworth is adamant that he be allowed to do his part.

But a younger man instead insists on stepping into the Union Jack uniform, making it possible for Cap to do what he must to bring an end to Baron Blood's killing. Nevertheless, Falsworth breathed his last that day--a touching ending to the story, and a farewell to a part of Steve Rogers' life that helped to mold the Captain America we know today.

Similar scenes have played out at one time or another, depending on the passage of time and the circumstances in which a character felt his own time had come. Instances such as when Cap was notified that Jeff Mace, the Patriot, was on his deathbed from cancer--or when Bucky Barnes, as the new Captain America, wanted to pay a last visit to one of the Young Allies, Pat O'Toole ("Knuckles"), at a veterans hospital.

But unless a writer of today happens upon a character who was ten or fifteen years old at the end of the war, Cap isn't likely to have further encounters with wartime survivors like Anna Kappelbaum.

And there are others of Marvel's flagship characters who have immutable roots in the past, people who don't (or didn't) have the luxury of having ingested a serum which slowed their aging process--most notably, the Fantastic Four, whose origin story has been revised to that of a government-cancelled starship project which Reed Richards and his friends decided to launch anyway, this time stripping the moment of any motivation having to do with a foreign power. But the four individuals remained young and vital through the decades since (while bringing up two growing children), even having experienced character-building moments that would otherwise anchor them in 20th century history--conversations which we must assume have almost certainly been wiped from their present-day thoughts.

(To those of you who have kept up with their current stories, I can't help but be curious: Just how far back do the memories of the FF go now?)

Nick Fury's origin was also tweaked to accommodate his adventures in the 21st century, being treated with an "infinity formula" which slowed his aging process. Nevertheless, age was very much on his mind in 1972 when he suspected an agent he was romantically involved with of being interested in the younger Captain America, leading to a volatile scene with Fury's "rival."

Yet we're forced to take into account the fact that Fury was given his age-slowing formula just before the end of World War II, which paints this scene in a different light than that of an "old warhorse" being consumed with jealously and rage over a celebrated and younger man who fought in the same war but hadn't paid his dues in the years of conflict which followed. For one thing, it means that Fury's anger at Cap is likely based at least in part on the fact that his formula is less effective than whatever age-slowing elements exist in Cap's super-soldier serum. Though jumping ahead to the present, we also have to contend with whatever year Marvel has now established for Cap being found and revived by the Avengers (I'm guessing it's around the year 2000?), which means Fury's clash with Cap couldn't have taken place as written since it firmly places Cap's revival in 1964.

All of this comprises a train of thought that might not amount to much--particularly if Marvel has somehow sifted through all of this and created an approach they're satisfied is working for their readers. For the last ten years or so, they've proven that they can prune or even cut down a few trees, with no apparent harm to the forest--i.e., their characters seem to need no substantive ties to the past (other than the sparse details of their origins) in order for meaningful and even compelling stories to be produced, an assertion which contemporary readers and movie-goers appear to agree with. And while characterization stemming from connections to the past remains important, there are arguably ways to achieve it other than by looking back to the past, or to past characters, to provide its framework. I don't happen to be fully on board with either of those statements, given how past events in comics have so often been the impetus for the drama to come, something that writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, et al. were so adept at making use of; yet I would concede that in the here and now, Marvel's comics are still doing their job of entertaining their readers while having shifted to a different formula of storytelling than what was to be found in their earlier body of work. Whether there's any merit to that statement, of course, remains in the province of the reader.


Monday, March 15, 2021

Mission To The Center Of The Earth!


When Roy Thomas kicked off his initial seven-issue run on Fantastic Four in 1972 with a look at their origin story as narrated by Ben Grimm, it seemed fitting that he would follow up with a story which featured the return of the Mole Man, who holds the distinction of being the book's first villain from its premiere issue in late 1961. But judging by the covers for the two-part tale, things aren't looking good for one FF member in particular... specifically, the Thing, who undertakes a mission on his own to confront the Mole Man on a personal issue.  Because from what we see at first glance, it appears that if the Mole Man doesn't kill him, the Human Torch will!

But, exactly what is Ben Grimm after in his single-minded quest to the center of the Earth? As the Thing reaches the abandoned site where the Mole Man had created a trap for the FF three years earlier (if we're going by real time), Thomas's narrative brings us up to speed on what preoccupies Ben's thoughts, and why he believes that the Mole Man is best suited to help him.

Part of Thomas's premise regarding Ben's rationale is on shaky ground, which Thomas himself will concede at this story's conclusion while failing to explore the second part of the premise altogether. Yet chances are the reader is at this point swept up on the momentum of the Thing's mission--and as Reed would put it later, as long as Ben holds out hope of success, then we have to share that hope.

And speaking of the rest of the FF: While it was Ben's decision to keep the rest of his team out of this, Johnny Storm has caught wind of Ben's encounter with their belligerent landlord, Collins, and put two and two together regarding Ben's destination. And so, like it or not, the Thing will soon have his closest friends supporting him on this mission.

Unknown to the FF, however, is that they'll also be fighting for the fate of the entire world!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Monday, March 8, 2021

This Just Isn't Hulk's Day


Three scientists who had attempted in the past to create a powerful, perfect new breed of human which would facilitate their conquest of our world have reappeared to try again--only this time, to make sure their creation doesn't turn against them as before, they weave a tale of deception in order to gain the assistance of Stephen Strange, who is asked to coordinate a neuro-surgical procedure which would ensure that the brain of their prototype does not develop any inclinations which would prove to be a danger to themselves and their research facility they've named "the Beehive." His curiosity piqued, Strange agrees to hear out the group, over the objections of one who has been called the mightiest mortal on the face of the Earth.

As we've previously seen, the Hulk's instincts prove to be correct--and once the new being, Paragon, emerges from his cocoon, our mystic master is endangered when Morlak, the leader of the group, tests Paragon's brain alterations by ordering him to slay Strange. Yet Strange has had the forethought to send a mental summons to the Hulk in order to have the behemoth at his side if it should prove to be necessary; but while Strange's journey to the Beehive was near-instantaneous, the Hulk is forced to use his own might to travel from New York to the Beehive's location on an island near China, guided only by Strange's spell.

Even for the Hulk, such a journey will take time; if he relies solely on the power of his leaps, he'll take much longer on his own than the travel time of a transatlantic flight, which would be just over 14 hours. Unfortunately, as we're about to see, the Hulk will also encounter perilous encounters along the way--delays which may doom the one he races to save!

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Just Call "Him"... Paragon!


After the failure of the group that would later be named the Enclave to create a perfect, powerful human specimen to aid in their goal of world conquest, it stood to reason that these men would make another such attempt--assuming they survived the retribution delivered by the one named Him, who viewed them as evil and acted accordingly. Survive it, they did--and make it, they did, once they brought in a specialist to help make sure that this new creation didn't turn on them like the last. But what they didn't count on was that one very angry johnny-come-lately would turn out to be their specialist's backup!

It's the 1977 Incredible Hulk Annual, where a new form of life has again emerged within the sinister complex known as the Beehive. And, once again, we're left to ask: Is it friend, or foe?

(It's probably not feeling too friendly after being attacked by everybody.)


Monday, March 1, 2021

Dr. Strange--Sorcerer Supreme!


In my early days of collecting comics, there were times that I would indulge in grabbing a random stack of a title and re-reading those issues in sequence, one after the other. Usually, they would be books that I hadn't laid eyes on in awhile--either that, or issues which had a storyline that I'd enjoyed and wanted to revisit. These days, with other irons in the fire, I've been revisiting comics through my work with the PPC--but I think if I were to choose such a stack today, one title I'd want to pull would be the issues featuring Roy Thomas's run on Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, a "stack" of issues which spanned from 1989-1993--further pared down to the thirty-five issues which were co-written with Thomas's wife, Dann. (Thomas would continue solo on the title for sixteen additional issues.)

For its first four issues, the title was published bi-monthly, perhaps because a Doctor Strange book had at times failed to reap the financial gains that Marvel had hoped for; nevertheless, with Thomas's arrival, the title shifted to monthly publication, and the die was cast. Coming aboard with Thomas was artist Jackson Guice, who had notably helped to launch X-Factor three years earlier and, here, inked his own work for much of his lengthy stay while also handling the book's cover art. That, in tandem with Thomas's penchant for featuring pairings and guest-stars that would grab a reader's attention if only for the sake of curiosity, produced some eye-catching and interesting stories that actually worked fairly well.

Nor would Thomas be reticent about expanding on the character of Strange himself, bringing new tangents to his relationship with his former disciple, Clea, as well as exploring Strange's family. In that respect, one door would tend to open another, as the book once again began to delve into the living dead when we discover that Strange had inadvertently made his brother, Victor (Vic), into a vampire (who would then go on to become the new Baron Blood). Granted, having Thomas at the helm likely tended to produce a few headaches for those working on Marvel's Appendix books.

And where there are vampires, can Morbius be far behind?

It will admittedly take some effort to get your head around Thomas's rationale on how Vic was transformed into a vampire. Suffice to say that once you've read the full, circuitous explanation, you may find yourself wondering why the Ancient One didn't have reservations about whether or not his disciple was ready to assume the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.

As we can see, Thomas has taken the opportunity to trot out Strange's martial arts training, which normally wouldn't amount to much when facing a super-strong foe unless you're packing an iron fist. Against the likes of Arkon, a warlord whom Thomas originally scripted in 1970, Strange can only make a valiant but hopeless attempt to bring his foe down.

One of the series' most out of the ordinary issues came fairly early in Thomas's run, a story which was almost entirely devoted to excerpts from an upcoming book written by Strange's friend and former love interest, Morgana Blessing, during the time when Strange was presumed dead--a book which reveals the truth about Stephen Strange's life as a sorcerer, as seen through the eyes of one who was in a position to know exactly what that life entailed and what led up to it. Upon his return, Strange is livid with Morgana, but decides to give her the benefit of the doubt when he calls on her for an explanation--yet even with seeing Strange alive and well, Morgana isn't in an entirely receptive mood.

The article in the Daily Bugle's "Now" magazine is a read in itself, and no small effort on the part of the Thomases (assuming either or both of them created its layout and/or script).  It would definitely be a page-turner if you happened to be one of the New Yorkers who had caught word on the street of the mystic named Dr. Strange, or, even if you had never heard of him, a fascinating exposé if true. Either way, it would doubtless do the job of building interest in and anticipation of Morgana's book--the release of which would be a windfall for its publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, and the bane of Strange, whose coveted privacy would evaporate overnight.

And if you're wondering why Strange doesn't simply handle this mystically, Thomas covers that base almost immediately--as he must, since he means for this part of his plot to continue for several issues.

Offhand, you and I could probably think of a number of workarounds for Strange here--for instance, what about a spell that simply causes everyone to dismiss Morgana's book as poppycock? National Enquirer fare? (And that's just off the top of my head, Doctor--you're bound to be more innovative in your field than I would be.)

As for Victor, he would continue to receive exposure in the distinctive costume of Baron Blood--while in mid-1990, the Thomases also have the distinction of scripting the last Dr. Strange issue produced by artist Gene Colan, who provides both pencils and inks.

In short, there's quite enough to keep the reader busy while perusing this series, as Thomas takes the opportunity to leave a more lasting mark on the book than what he contributed to the character's brief 1968-69 title (which switched to bi-monthly publication in its last few issues). And in addition to expected appearances by characters such as Baron Mordo, the dread Dormammu, Eternity, et al., Thomas isn't hesitant to shake up the book with the unexpected, such as Hobgoblin, the Juggernaut, the return of Silver Dagger, the Scarecrow, Red Wolf... even the Black Crow, a character I frankly never thought I would see in a Marvel story again. Nor was the title immune to the plethora of characters populating some of that decade's crossover events: Acts of Vengeance, Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade. There were few gems to be found once Marvel's fortunes went south in the mid-'90s--but among those series which managed to shine before that point was reached, you may enjoy what Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme had to offer.

Covers by Geof Isherwood, mid- to late-1992, when Thomas had shifted to writing solo