Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Raging Return of... Blastaar!


While there arguably may not be much to recommend 1969's X-Men #53, it was really the issue's more notable distinctions which drew me to pull it aside and explore it. It's fair to say that the title was in free fall at this point in time, and it seemed all the stops were being pulled out in an effort to resuscitate it (though the Hail Mary move of killing off the book's core character, Charles Xavier, appeared to only send it into more of a tailspin). In a way, you could say that Issue #53 could be regarded as the poster child for where things stood with the X-Men book. Had its villain, Blastaar, somehow prevailed in his efforts to destroy them, it wouldn't have been surprising if readers came away feeling that the book and its characters had been put out of their misery.

That said, it's interesting to take a look at this issue in a different light, as it seemed to trigger a number of changes in the book's development. Currently scripting X-Men was Arnold Drake, a writer with a number of feathers in his cap* including being the creator of DC's Deadman (with Carmine Infantino) and Doom Patrol (with Bob Haney co-scripting), while at Marvel he and artist Gene Colan created the Guardians of the Galaxy. In addition, Roy Thomas would come aboard two issues later, to be eventually joined by artist Neal Adams and provide the book with some of its most acclaimed issues, giving new meaning to the phrase "there's nowhere to go but up."

*Having strong overtones of Jack Kirby's writing style, this issue of X-Men may not give you the best impression of Drake's work, a resume which includes a distinguished history in comics as well as what he brought to the table in terms of character development.

As for the issue's artist, Barry Smith, he produces his first work under the Marvel banner here, himself imitating Kirby (which reportedly secured him the job as well as further work for the company)--a style he would continue soon after in a three-part Avengers tale scripted by Thomas (with Sal Buscema taking over in Part 3).

One more piece of trivia is added nearly twenty years later, when this issue would be recycled as part of a grab bag of comics intended to be distributed as Halloween treats:

(With a nod to @Benkeisermusic for showing us the size of this "mini-comic"--6.25" x 4.25")

The mini-version also featured a Thing-themed maze, as well as a team pin-up by Jim Steranko from issue #49.

As the cover of the story makes obvious, the team is fated to go up against Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst, who has found himself unceremoniously returned to the Negative Zone after a failed attempt to enforce his will on our world. As you might imagine, Blastaar is not at all happy to have been deprived of a target like Earth.

Meanwhile, the X-Men's remaining member with mental powers, Marvel Girl, is about to conduct an experiment designed by Professor X to transmute matter into radio waves which could be sent into space. Good grief, Xavier, so this is what you did in your spare time?

So what have we got: A power-mad alien bent on finding a way to transmute his matter in order to safely return himself to Earth... and an untried experiment where nobody in the X-Men can predict what will happen when Jean Grey flips the "on" switch. What could go wrong??


Monday, April 26, 2021

The City Of The Space Gods!


After resolving to confront the mysterious Celestials upon learning of their impending judgment which would decide the fate of the planet Earth, the mighty Thor hasn't fared well in his all-too-brief encounter with the first Celestial he has decided to challenge directly:

...unless you consider being atomized on the spot as a sign of progress!

And indeed, when the mammoth alien named Gammenon turns to enter the ancient Inca city shielded by the dome the Celestials have erected over it, there is nothing to indicate that a god had once stood among the peaks of the Andes mountains and waged a futile struggle against him. It's only when Gammenon sets down the aircraft full of passengers which he'd gathered for study that we learn what became of Thor in the instant of Gammenon's strike--and that even an Asgardian realizes there are times when discretion is the better part of valor.

As Blake disembarks along with the other passengers, however, he discovers not only another human already present in this city, but one of the race of Eternals he had met (as Thor) 1,000 years in the past prior to the coming of the Celestials' third host. The other, archaeologist Daniel Damian, had decided soon after discovering the existence of the Celestials in 1976 to stay in the city just before they sealed it off for the next fifty years, and take the opportunity to learn what he could of the space gods decades before the time would come when they would render their fateful judgment. Blake meets Damian after three years had passed--but the latter is startled to learn that not only does Blake have knowledge of the Celestials, but that "Donald Blake" is also something of an archaeological "treasure" that Dr. Damian is startled to see face-to-face.

Yet having more than met his match in defying one Celestial, how will Thor proceed now that he finds himself in a virtual nest of them?

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Within The Andes Wait... The Celestials!


It feels appropriately belated to make this admission fifty years after the fact, but I really had no substantive knowledge of or exposure to Jack Kirby's astounding concepts from his series The Eternals until a little over a year after that series had folded--because it was then when Roy Thomas crafted a two-part story published in Mighty Thor which served to usher in those concepts to the more mainstream Marvel universe which Kirby had kept at arm's length. (Though technically I'd say that my education began when I picked up the 1978 Thor Annual, where Thor was a witness--or, rather, not a witness--to the arrival of the third Celestial host.) My reason for giving The Eternals a wide berth had solely to do with the problem I had with Mr. Kirby's style of writing, thoughts that I've shared elsewhere in the PPC--a caveat which didn't apply to Mr. Thomas's handling of Kirby's characters, though a moot point when it comes to the Celestials since they aren't exactly verbose.

Thomas's 1979 saga involving the Celestials and the Eternals would also come to include the Olympians and the Asgardians, and would culminate in the 300th issue of Thor (though Thomas had by that time left the book)--a span of eighteen issues in all, which arguably extended the story perhaps longer than necessary and, in the case of several of those issues, digressed unnecessarily. But it had a promising beginning in those first two issues which saw Thor committed to investigating the current-day activities of the Celestials on Earth following Asgard's survival of a false Ragnarok and yet another falling out with his father, almighty Odin.

Which leads us* to Thor finally making tracks for the South American Andes mountains, and a meeting with "space gods" who would regard the Thunder God and his ilk as borderline inconsequential to their affairs.

*After, that is, a four-issue pause of filler stories (strange detours to make, considering how crucial Thor considers time running out on the impending judgment of the Celestials), featuring work by writers Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, Peter Gillis, Don Thompson, and Maggie Thompson, with artists Alan Kupperberg, Pablo Marcos, Wayne Boring, Tom Palmer, and Keith Pollard.  One of the four, co-scripted by Thomas, I still consider to be the most unreadable Thor story ever to see print (though there's another story which features Thor that comes in a close second!), and, to this day, have yet to summon the fortitude to review it for the PPC.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

"This Man... This Monster!"


"Quite possibly this may be one of the greatest illustrated epics yet..."

A number of you who have read issues of Fantastic Four published in the 1960s more than likely recall a story from mid-1966 which featured this classic depiction of the Thing by artist Jack Kirby:

(Pictured here alongside Mike Deodato Jr.'s homage to Kirby's rendition) 

It's curious how this issue has become so highly regarded--or, more directly, what makes it so highly regarded. At first glance, the splash page, as well as the pages which follow, appear to indicate that this issue will be a turning point for Ben Grimm, perhaps focusing on his status as the Thing and featuring a reckoning in one form or another. Yet when you read this issue cover to cover, you realize that it instead quickly segues from the brooding of Ben Grimm to a plot which all but removes him from the story. That's hard to believe after looking at this issue's startling cover, which seems to indicate that not only is the Thing indeed a fixture of this story, but he's also involved in a crucial moment that sees one of his teammates fighting for his life, whose best friend stands in stony silence and makes no move to save him.


Monday, April 12, 2021

"Every Hand Against Him!"


It's hard to believe, but as we've seen, even as bizarre a partnership as that of the Cobra and Mister Hyde was enough of a challenge to the God of Thunder to occupy a good deal of Thor's time and effort in collaring them. Even so, our dastardly duo was well and truly thrashed by the time the dust settled--particularly Hyde, whose boasts about his strength being more than a match for Thor earned him a considerable dose of humility after meeting his foe in hand-to-hand combat.

So off to jail these two went--and normally, we wouldn't hear from captured and jailed super-criminals until a good deal of time had passed, enough for them to lick their wounds and presumably hire a good lawyer to get them out on parole well before their non-super-powered brothers behind bars. (Either that, or use their powers to escape at the first opportunity--there were no specialized detention facilities like Ryker's Island or the Vault for super-villains in those days.) But in this case, it took only a few issues for Hyde and the Cobra to reappear--all because Loki, the God of Evil, saw enough potential in them to post bail for them in the amount of $500K in order to make use of them against his half-brother, Thor--after making a considerable upgrade to their powers, that is.

Call me crazy, Loki, but somehow I don't think these two have any plans to show up for their trial. Then again, what's a half-million in mortal currency to you?

On paper, Loki's upgrades for Hyde and the Cobra might appear to be impressive, particularly in the case of Hyde whose strength is now doubled to that of two dozen men. But as for the Cobra, whose cobra-like abilities only amounted to speed and cunning, he received the short end of Loki's stick as he still must rely on specialized equipment like gas and poison darts against his foes, though his normal strength has now been doubled to that of two men--a trifle compared to Hyde, but he'll need every edge he can get if he and Hyde are going up against Thor again.

And so with five previous issues under their collective belt, we again are presented with the threat of the Cobra and Mister Hyde, more powerful and dangerous than ever--and who, thanks to Loki's plan, will also have the advantage of holding a hostage in the form of Jane Foster, nurse and love interest to Thor's alter-ego of Dr. Donald Blake. Yet from a look at this story's covers, it also appears that Asgard itself will play a major part in this conflict--but with Thor intent on saving the life of the mortal woman he is forbidden to love, will Odin be with the Thunder God, or against him?

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Face Of Vengeance


While Tomb Of Dracula often spent quality time on Dracula's obsessions of revenge or power--whether it was his conflicts with Quincy Harker and his group, or furthering his goal of world rule by vampires, or warring with Doctor Sun, or accumulating power through his Dark Church cult, or even his periodic and invariably disastrous meetings with his daughter, Lilith--writer Marv Wolfman would also pause at times and provide a change of pace with compelling diversions into mystery and the macabre for the lord of vampires, a number of which the PPC has had the pleasure of exploring. Some that come to mind may ring familiar:

Fact vs. Fiction - Angie Turner has drawn close to her a number of fictional characters to whom she has somehow given life, but oversteps herself when she seeks to draw Dracula into that circle.

Hell Hath No Fury... - A web of deceit and murder spun by fashion executive Daphne von Wilkinson, who strikes a bargain with Dracula to take revenge against the men who screwed her over (so to speak) to facilitate their own ambitions.

Journal Of Darkness - A compendium of instances where Dracula has paused to reflect on those times in his life which filled him with pride, or rage, or even regret.

In Death Do We Join! - In the Russian village of Kamenka, an abusive husband returns from the grave as a vampire to menace his wife, in spite of the commands of Dracula to fall in line.

Return From The Grave! - A corpse rises from the grave to reclaim his own--a mystery which draws the attention of Scotland Yard, and defies even Dracula.

More such tales are in the offing here, never (heh heh) fear--but one tale which surely falls into this category comes from mid-1976, when Dracula was establishing his power base in his satanic cult and makes preparations to take part in a ceremony where he will be joined with a wife. Yet the nuptials of the "Dark-Lord" will be overshadowed by a gruesome threat from a dead man--one who seeks revenge against those responsible for bringing his life to an untimely, acidic end!


Monday, April 5, 2021

Should The Hammer Be Lost...!


When Thor, the God of Thunder, arrived on the scene in the early '60s, Marvel had raised the bar in terms of a character who didn't succumb to mortal weakness and whose power dwarfed what Earth's super-beings at the time could wield and deploy. Yet since Thor was for the most part facing mortal nemeses in his 1962-66 feature title, Journey Into Mystery, he was given a vulnerability that would insert a bit of uncertainty into Thor's conflicts for his new readers by providing him with an Achilles heel (er, hammer) that would allow his foes to become a viable threat to even a god.

Having already explored the perplexing subject of the Thunder God's sixty-second liability in a previous post, it becomes easier to turn our focus to another means by which Thor's exploits became more marketable, a tried-and-true tool which has been applied to giving a leg up to any number of new comics concepts but could prove particularly challenging for a character such as Thor--specifically, the eccentric and outlandish threats which we began to see grace the mag's covers, many of whom were shown to give Thor a run for his money in spite of what they actually brought to the table. To name a few:

Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man, the poor man's Kang--a time traveler who at times (heh, get it?) traveled to our century to gain the means by which to secure his power base in his own;

Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism who would like nothing better than to conscript the Thunder God to his cause;

The Absorbing Man, who owes to Loki his power to absorb the strength and power of whatever he comes into contact with;

The Grey Gargoyle, a chemist who turns to crime when he accidentally comes into contact with a potion which turns him to stone and allows his touch to do likewise to others;

Sandu, a stage magician whose "powers" are enhanced a thousandfold by Loki; and Merlin, who returns from medieval times and schemes to take control of the U.S. government. (Take a number, pal.) Both magicians apparently have the same strategy when it comes to Thor:

But for any Thor aficionado, we must add two others to the list: the Cobra, who, well, slithers, and whose initial claim to fame was that he was fast enough to dodge Thor's hammer; and Mister Hyde, the result of a potion which gave disgruntled, out of work scientist Calvin Zabo a more malicious appearance (and tendencies to match) while also providing him with the strength of twelve men.

And as will become apparent, a villain having an inflated ego can be another tool which can serve to convince the reader that even the God of Thunder faces a true danger here.

Hyde, like the Cobra, will come to feel that his new power made him more than a match for Thor. Yet that's quite a leap for the Cobra to make, who ends up depending on a number of devices to supplement his cobra-like movements when Thor finally catches up with him--as if even writer Stan Lee realized that there's not much to this villain otherwise, aside from his motif.

As for Hyde, who seeks revenge against Donald Blake, the doctor's office is his first stop, where he manages to shove Blake out of a window to his presumed death before moving on with his plans. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing that Blake and Thor are one and the same, though the news that one has saved the other only infuriates him more.

But as for any thoughts of superiority Hyde might have held over his opponent, well...

Both Hyde and the Cobra manage to escape being taken into custody--though soon afterward, we're treated to one of the most bizarre partnerships ever.