Monday, May 31, 2021

"Bedlam At The Baxter Building!"


Over fifty-five years ago, the city of New York was gearing up for the wedding of two of its most famous residents--a celebration which spilled over into the year's action-packed Fantastic Four annual!

...but not everyone was thrilled with the impending nuptials.

It's been over eight years since the PPC briefly tipped its hat to this 1965 issue, and it's high time it was given its full due. But try explaining that to Dr. Doom, who, at this point in time, has recovered from the injuries his hands received from the crushing attack of the Thing, though it's his earlier defeat at the hands of Reed Richards which continues to gnaw at him. Fortunately, through the magic of what we used to call "back issues," we can pair up scenes in which Doom continued to rage at past humiliations he has suffered from both members of the Fantastic Four, moments of bitter recollection which began to fester just around the time when the Frightful Four were about to launch their final attack against the FF at their Baxter Building headquarters--after which, we jump ahead to follow up with Doom's harsh treatment of his copy of the "Daily Press." In both instances, it's clear that few can hold a grudge like this armored foe.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Fantasti-Dog


As the group of issues which sought to reboot and re-establish the Fantastic Four title after it (along with other flagship titles) shuttered itself following the Onslaught storyline, the series' third volume of stories perhaps tends to be overlooked by those in the here and now who leapfrog over it to reach the Silver and Bronze Age issues which for them might recapture the FF's glory days--particularly when Volume 3, the last continuing body of FF work which spanned the years 1998-2011, preceded the final sputtering of issues which effectively brought an end to the Fantastic Four comic book indefinitely. Nor did Marvel Comics appear to shed any tears on the subject; in fact, I imagine the company finds its production methods these days to be a relief, freed at last from the headache of continuity minutiae that weighed down the book's characters, and its momentum, like an anchor. One can almost hear the likely argument to be made for the limited, back-to-back story arcs, all occurring under the umbrella of the same masthead, which are prevalent in today's comics: "What's the big deal? When a new writer and artist team came aboard a title back in the day, they almost always pivoted from whatever came before and instead explored new directions and even made certain changes in the characters--what's the difference between what was happening then, and now?" Oh, Marvel. To paraphrase the late, great Louis Armstrong: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

That said, you can see several such spurts of new directions taking place in Volume 3--and as we move further from that run of FF comics, there are talents from that period whose work you may find deserves a second look, some of whom have been given their due in the PPC. A few that come to mind were also surprising in terms of how well they handled the characterizations and exploits of the team--scripters such as J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Waid, Chris Claremont, Mark Millar, and Jonathan Hickman, each of whom brought something interesting to the table. Claremont, of course, was the more tried-and-true of this mixed bag in terms of reliability in being mindful of what came before, though at times you couldn't help but feel that any of his Fantastic Four plots and/or characters could be interchanged with those in X-Men and vice versa. (For example, I wasn't particularly charitable in an appraisal of "Ninja Sue.") But there was one addition to the FF family that made perfect sense--so much so that it was fair to wonder why no one thought of it before.

Which is our cue to (heh) "un-leash" another

Marvel Trivia Question

Under what circumstances did the Richards family adopt a dog?

Monday, May 24, 2021

Rogue Storm!


We might as well dive in here and start with a bullet list of why the X-Men suddenly find themselves in what may be a no-win situation:

  • Arcade--the colorful mercenary who fulfills his contracts by trapping the soon-to-be-victim in his larger-than-life complex named Murderworld, where death is one's only escape--has made the mistake of insulting the armored menace known as Dr. Doom and now finds himself a prisoner and possibly marked for death!
  • Miss Locke, Arcade's henchwoman, manages to conscript the X-Men by presenting them with an offer they can't refuse: rescue Arcade from Doom, or their loved ones whom she's taken hostage will be killed!
  • One of the X-Men, Wolverine, is adamant about not giving in to Locke's demand--proposing that the X-Men instead leave Arcade to Doom and attack Locke's complex in force, retrieve their people, and destroy Murderworld!
  • The X-Men's field leader, Storm, counters with a plan that splits the team into groups--one to deal with Locke and retrieve the hostages, while the other heads to Doom's castle in New York's Adirondack mountains to free Arcade.

Having already gone over the merits of the positions of both Storm and Wolverine in a separate post, it's time to set things in motion and see where the chips fall in regard to whether the two teams of X-Men will be successful in their dual tasks. But after getting a look at two of the issue covers, frankly the odds don't look good for anyone but our villains!


Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Whites Of Their Eyes


This post's title takes its lead from a directive that dates all the way back to the 15th century and the Swedish general-king Gustavus Adolphus, regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in modern history, who gave standing orders to his musketeers "never to give fire, till they could see their own image in the pupil of their enemy's eye." That instruction would trickle down to other military leaders who would paraphrase it, but it became famous for Americans during the battle of Bunker Hill, fought during the siege of Boston in 1775: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," the meaning of which was thought to be two-fold: Hold fire until the moment when it would have the greatest effect, and don't waste your ammunition--which essentially boiled down to "Make each shot count." The order was thought to be attributed to one of four men: Col. William Prescott, Maj. Gen. John Stark, Maj. Israel Putnam, or Capt. Richard Gridley (though the other three could also have repeated it during the battle after it was first spoken).

As to how this could possibly apply to comics reading, you may already have made the connection. Depending on the artist, there were times in a story when one never knew when--or why--a character's eyes would simply... disappear, to be replaced with two empty slits of (usually) white. Ninety-eight percent of the time it would occur for those characters who wore a mask, which looks really strange when you line up other people beside them who aren't so afflicted:

Sometimes the effect goes back and forth, for no particular reason:

(Cap would also have his own now-you-see-them, now-you-don't moments.)

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Gods That Were!


In late 1976, writer Steve Englehart produced what appeared to be the definitive origin of not only Odin, Lord of Asgard, but of Asgard itself, along with its pantheon of gods. And just for good measure, the events of the tale included the creation of the Earth, as well as the first humans!

Over time, we've learned that the Asgardians have come to believe, based on these ancient legends, that Earth's fate is inextricably tied to their own; more to the point, that when Asgard finally meets its end as a result of the prophesied doom of Ragnarok, so too must Earth perish.

In the interim, however, we've been witness to some Ragnarok "false alarms," including one particular Ragnarok which Odin orchestrated into occurring in order to ensure the survival of the realm and all within; and we've also seen the true Ragnarok come and go, with no repercussions whatsoever for we poor mortals or our world. Ragnarok, however, is not ground that Englehart is interested in covering here, but he does go on to illustrate how the other gods of Asgard enter the picture--and yes, one god in particular.

The information about Bilskirnir, Thor's massive 540-chamber palace, is a peculiar piece of trivia Englehart injects which can't help but stand out in this segment. We know that at this point in time, Thor is utterly lacking in humility, so the fact that he wants his dwelling to stand out above all others shouldn't be surprising--but one has to wonder if Thor has ever stepped foot in half the number of chambers this gargantuan residence offers. (An artist's cutaway of the place is probably too much to ask.)

Englehart's presentation here leaves room for succeeding writers to further interpret and use for their own purposes--and nearly 3½ years later, that's just what we find Roy Thomas doing, when he adapts Englehart's information for his own tale that involves Thor's pursuit of details regarding the Celestials' fifty-year judgment of Earth. It's a story where Thor would not only discover another, unknown Ragnarok which took place, but would also reveal additional circumstances regarding the origin of Odin which deviate from what we've seen.

And somehow, this floating horror holds the key to it all.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Spy Who Overtaxed Me


When Strange Tales ended its run in May of 1968, it served as a springboard which launched each of its two principal characters--Doctor Strange and Nick Fury--into their own titles the following month. Doctor Strange would continue the former book's numbering and begin with issue #169--while the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. book would start off with issue #1. Prior to then, Jim Steranko had shepherded the SHIELD segment of Strange Tales successfully for fifteen issues, and it seemed that Marvel had struck gold with Steranko and his interpretation of the man who had been appointed as head of SHIELD. Who better, then, to spearhead Fury's new solo espionage series?

And yet the celebration of a new SHIELD series with Steranko at the helm was short-lived. As before, Steranko was working on a title being published monthly--but where Strange Tales offered a comfortable 11-12 pages for the writer/artist to produce, as he did for over a year, Steranko now found himself on the hook for twenty pages of story per month--inevitably running into deadline pressures as early as issue #4, when a story by Roy Thomas and artist Frank Springer was substituted and which retold Fury's installment as head of SHIELD and covered the events from Strange Tales #135 in more detail. Issue #5 subsequently turned out to be Steranko's final work on the series (though he would turn in cover art for issues 6-7), after which Springer would return as artist and several scripters would try their hand on the book.

But Steranko's early work for the series was nevertheless something to behold.  It was here he would introduce the character of Scorpio, who would later turn up as a member of the Zodiac crime cartel but who flies solo in this series and whose true identity will elude Fury until Steranko's departure. Until then, Scorpio would relentlessly pursue bringing about the death of Fury--beginning with an elaborate scheme that would use the resources of SHIELD itself, a scheme that would backfire thanks to the tenacity of its intended victim.

The battle between the two see-saws back and forth--but just as Fury seems poised to learn Scorpio's identity, a twist to this tale reaches its climax that first allows the villain to escape, only to then bring about his apparent death.

Yet Scorpio returns in Steranko's final issue, as Fury pursues a lead from SHIELD's telepathic operatives and he's forced into evading a series of attacks launched by the key of the Zodiac, which ultimately hem in on him and culiminate in his capture.

Scorpio's scheme this time is to cast a mask that allows him to impersonate Fury within SHIELD, and then arrange for Fury himself to replace a Life Model Decoy unit scheduled to be tested in a deadly chamber of fatal traps--nor do Fury's fellow agents realize the LMD is their leader, given that the face is masked (then pull it back, Fury--even I knew that!) and they're aware that the unit was programmed with Fury's own reactions and reflexes. Clearly Scorpio has an axe to grind with Fury that involves stress and suffering rather than killing the man when he was unconscious and helpless.

Yet, again, Steranko provides twists to this story that involve more than Fury and Scorpio--and eventually, circumstances result in Fury's pursuit of his foe, the man's literal unmasking, and another apparent end to the villain.

Scorpio would resurface (heh, get it?) in Avengers #72, where Fury has faked his own death (thanks to an attack by Bullseye) in order to infiltrate Zodiac as (you guessed it) Scorpio. Once the dust settles on the defeated cartel, and the Avengers learn that Fury is alive, the mystery of Scorpio's identity is at last revealed by Thomas, as Fury recounts what he'd learned in that last chase in which he saw Scorpio alive.

In closing the circle, Thomas also pays a bit of homage to Steranko's dramatic splash pages from issues 1 and 5 of Nick Fury, Agent of Shield, though Thomas's effort is somewhat disappointing in that it boils down to a play on words which takes its material from the lead-in to a joke.

Gerry Conway would also contribute his two cents in a Defenders story where Scorpio is out to create his own members of Zodiac, but sticks to Steranko's general theme for the splash page's wording:

Before Steranko would bring Scorpio back for his curtain call, he would provide us with some unorthodox Fury stories which featured the return of Jimmy Woo in his first appearance as a SHIELD agent, followed by a 1930s scientist bent on wiping out mankind--as well as a mystery which plays off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles"* (with an evil Nazi plot twist):

*Which, granted, strays from the "Agent of SHIELD" espionage angle a reader might have been expecting from this title.

Once Steranko departs the series, he leaves behind two covers for the stories which follow--one of which won the 1968 Alley Award for Best Cover.

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD would last for 18 issues, the final six shifted to a bi-monthly schedule. Springer returned to the series for six issues post-Steranko, followed by an appearance by Barry Smith, with Herb Trimpe pencilling the next three. But the book effectively ceased publication with issue 15, at which time it began featuring only reprinted stories from Strange Tales Nick Fury segments until the plug was finally pulled. Oddly enough, even then Marvel was promoting the book with new cover art, recycling Strange Tales for all it was worth.

(To which Nick Fury might have replied, "Nuts!")


Monday, May 10, 2021

Memories From Mimir


The 1978 Thor Annual takes place at a crucial point in Asgard's existence, with the Asgardians on the brink of facing their worst nightmare: Ragnarok, the prophesied twilight of the gods which will doom not only the realm but also Earth, as well (or so the Asgardians believe). Yet for all intents and purposes, this story takes its cue from an earlier annual from 1976, where the gods of Asgard faced off against those of Olympus, and each realm believed itself to have triumphed when in reality neither did. Thor, still young (well, for an immortal) and headstrong at the time, was not at all pleased with his father Odin's explanation as to why each side was denied a true victory--but we find that Thor's mood is equally dour in the more current tale, where it seems that the coming crisis, which most have laid at the feet of Loki's machinations, is unavoidable, leaving these warrior gods of Asgard bristling at their collective helplessness.

To learn how one story connects with the other to bring about a third, we must catch up with Thor as he wanders the royal palace aimlessly and finds himself before one who takes delight in mocking Asgard's current state of affairs--Mimir, the fiery guardian of the Well of Wisdom where Odin was recently compelled to cast one of his eyes into in order to learn how he may prevent the coming of Ragnarok. What knowledge Odin gained from that encounter proved to be ultimately fruitless--yet Thor has no intention of paying such a price for the answers he seeks this day.

Mimir leads off by recounting the Asgardian/Olympian conflict, a "war" which left Thor feeling manipulated and sent him stomping out of Asgard earthward. It's something of a stretch on writer Roy Thomas's part, since in the story the rest of us read, Thor's mood was improved considerably by a conversation with the Norn Queen, Karnilla, leaving him in a more upbeat frame of mind:

And yet to accommodate the current tale, off to Earth he goes, now unwilling to accept his limitations and determined to explore expanding Asgard's influence among mortals in anticipation of the throne eventually being seated by himself. But in so doing, he is destined to cross paths for the first time with a highly-advanced race of Earth-born "gods" who have their own plans for the primitive mortals of the world--and who await the return of beings who, unknown to Thor, had long ago begun shaping the evolution of mankind as part of an operation which would take millennia to come to fruition!


Thursday, May 6, 2021

"Today Earth Died!"


For its final issue in May of 1968, you can't say that Strange Tales didn't try to go out with a bang--the kind of bang, unfortunately, which portends the end of the world, as artist/writer Jim Steranko makes clear on the splash page of the Nick Fury portion of the issue.

Steranko and inker Joe Sinnott's impressive opening page, which entreats the reader to turn it and find out the details, receives a bit of reworking for its appearance in the letters page* of the new Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD series which premiered the following month. Steranko's original depiction, come to think of it, would have made a fitting entry in the PPC's prior post featuring the art of the letterer, though it's difficult to tell whether it was Steranko or letterer Sam Rosen who superimposed the mushroom cloud effect with the story's title. (Perhaps both men pooled their talents.)

*Entitled--what else?--"Don't Yield, Write S.H.I.E.L.D."

This final Fury story of the book--one that I've been meaning to get back to ever since it was featured as part of a brief roundup of splash pages which caught my eye--turns out to be a bit offbeat for a SHIELD story and perhaps not a tale that one would expect to find as part of a mag's final issue, yet it comes off as well-timed for regular readers since it provides a change of pace from the heated Yellow Claw conflict which had played out over several issues. As to what's on Fury's mind here, the head of SHIELD isn't actually brooding about some approaching apocalypse, but is instead dictating a message to Jimmy Woo, a former FBI agent who got his start in the 1956-57 espionage series Yellow Claw and then segued to Strange Tales in the fall of '67 where he lent a hand to SHIELD against the Claw--a partnership which Fury is interested in formalizing.

Of course, when it comes to SHIELD, duty may call at the drop of a hat, something Fury knows all too well--but the coming threat will in the end be unlike any other that he's faced.


Monday, May 3, 2021

Prisoners Of The Fourth Host!


In 1979, when the mighty Thor made the decision to pursue and deal with the looming threat of the "space gods" known as the Celestials, his course took him to the Andes mountains in South America, and an ancient Inca city hidden inside an impenetrable dome where the fourth host of the Celestials had descended three years earlier to initiate a fifty-year judgment of the human race which might result in our destruction when that judgment was rendered. As we've seen, Thor was forced to alter his mission and instead rescue a plane full of innocent mortals whose passenger jet had been captured by the Celestials for further study; yet in that time he met and learned of Dr. Daniel Damian, an archaeologist who elected to stay in the city at the time the dome was sealed--while also trapped with Dr. Damian were the discorporated atoms of three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who had been sent to the area to investigate, but encountered much, much more than they could have conceived.

To learn their fate, as well as the circumstances involving Dr. Damian's choice to spend the rest of his life in this "city of space gods," we circle back to get a look at these events through the eyes of the man who put them in motion: artist/writer Jack Kirby, who was producing a notable new series at Marvel known as The Eternals, a race of beings who came about when the first Celestial host arrived on Earth millennia ago and began experimenting with what was then the highest form of life on the planet--the ape--to produce, in time, three entirely different species, one of which was an advanced form of human which would live separate from their more primitive brethren and be immune to death (ergo, the Eternals).

One of their number, Ikaris, is present when Dr. Damain and his daughter Margo arrive to study the Inca city and artifacts which, incredibly, seem to represent beings not of Earth. And there is one other Eternal left to be discovered in this city--a fellow Eternal left in a crypt to await the day when the fourth Celestial host would arrive and deposit those who would decide the fate of a world.

Ajak, as we discovered previously, also became known to Thor when the Thunder God met the Eternals just prior to the arrival of the space gods' third host--and the two would renew their association one-thousand years later during Thor's time in the city where the Celestials had congregated to undertake their judgment of our world. But now, we return three years before that point, when Kirby has begun to share these inspired concepts for the first time--where Ajak and others emerge from the crypt where their atoms were stored by the Celestials pending their return to Earth, and we piece together the events which would eventually lead to Thor's involvement. Considering the stakes and beings involved, it's become all too clear that this would be a matter to eventually be settled among gods.