Thursday, July 29, 2021

Special Agent Fred Duncan, At Your Service


Given how prevalent the plotline of anti-mutant sentiment has been in Marvel's line of X-books, and how we've seen increasingly powerful forces engage in operations to target and incapacitate or eliminate mutants, it was no surprise to find even the mutant X-Men questioning Charles Xavier's dream of peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants--at one point, even holding an impassioned meeting with their founder and mentor which called into question their taking on field missions which often only served to put targets on their backs. Such a meeting could only bring to light the injuries and deaths the team has suffered and grieved; and to his dismay and sadness, Xavier also discovers from Rachel Summers, who has arrived from an alternate timeline where mutants have been openly hunted and enslaved, that he and his school and students were early casualties in the outbreak of full-scale war against mutants.

As we've learned from Nightcrawler, and as we've seen for ourselves, there were serious consequences for Storm during the operation against Rogue which was sanctioned by the United States government. Yet in the beginning, before the "X-Men" were formed and Xavier began to see humans becoming aware of and alarmed at the existence of mutants in their midst, he reached out to the office of the F.B.I. charged with investigating the situation and proposed working closely with its agents as a joint task force, comparing notes on the mutant situation as it developed while also making contact with any mutants who appeared in order to ascertain and, if necessary, curtail any threat they might pose.

Thus would begin a long and productive quid pro quo relationship between Xavier and the office of Special Agent Fred Duncan, as Xavier assembled a staff of his own to respond to incidences where it was necessary to learn the abilities and intentions of a new mutant.* Strange that Duncan and Xavier didn't choose to make contact with each other when Magneto had attacked Cape Citadel; instead, Xavier was alerted to the incident by, of all things, a radio bulletin. But the two men were on the same page when it came to the Vanisher.

*Xavier would be more direct with the X-Men themselves as to their ongoing mission: "There are many mutants walking the Earth... and more are born each year! It is our job to protect mankind from those mutants who hate the human race, and wish to destroy it... the evil mutants!" (paraphrased from The X-Men #1)

Duncan's communications with Xavier (and vice versa) take place behind the scenes from this point on (alerting Xavier to the sightings of Ka-Zar, for instance). But when Xavier suddenly dies after a fatal encounter with the "sub-human" named Grotesk, Duncan addresses the X-Men after the funeral regarding their future. (Writer Gary Friedrich has him named "Amos" Duncan, for whatever reason.)

Time passes, and Duncan would appear here and there in other titles such as Ka-Zar, Shanna the She-Devil--as well as X-Men: The Hidden Years, a title which picks up where the cancelled X-Men series left off and of course features a once-more-alive Xavier who had recovered by the end of the original series' last issue. Here, he mostly makes a cameo appearance, but it's a nice nod to the character by writer/artist John Byrne.

Much later, however, when the new X-Men have established themselves, Senator Robert Kelly, who heads an ad hoc Congressional committee on mutant affairs, begins stoking anti-mutant fervor once more--and the team's below-the-radar ties with the U.S. Government now work against them.

The X-Men's plan succeeds (though not without complications)--and if you're wondering why Duncan himself didn't head this off, stay tuned.

An interesting companion piece to the relationship between Xavier and Duncan can be found in the 2008 issue X-Men: Odd Men Out, which publishes two previously unreleased stories by former X-Men artist Dave Cockrum two years after his death and adds context to pivotal points in the existence of the team which Duncan and of course Xavier played a role in. The first story, written by Roger Stern, reunites the two old friends after Duncan had retired from the Bureau and began working as a security consultant while also writing a book (hoping to "blow the lid off the government's mishandling of anti-mutant hysteria."

The issue is a pleasant trip down memory lane for the two, as well as an interesting retrospective--while Stern, no stranger to past lore of Marvel's stable of heroes, provides sensible explanations for those instances where Duncan's activities "behind the scenes" could have shed some light on things occurring in the book during the late '60s. For example, Duncan's true reason for instructing the team to split up following Xavier's "death" (a sham which both Duncan and Jean Grey had been made fully aware of by Xavier):

While "Project Wideawake," which involved the Government constructing and deploying a new series of Sentinels as part of an effort to seek out and end the mutant threat, barrels ahead while shutting out Duncan's input entirely.

As for the virus that Carol Danvers deploys to erase the Pentagon database on the X-Men, Duncan is there when Project Wideawake's head, Henry Gyrich, comes looking to roll some heads but is outraged by Duncan's seeming inability to reconstruct the data. And when Gyrich pulls rank, he finds that Duncan has already prepared his response.

In a later series published in 2012-13, The First X-Men by Neal Adams and Christos Gage, where Logan and Sabretooth take it upon themselves to gather a group of young people (not yet denoted as "mutants" by nongovernment personnel) and train them in the use of their powers, Duncan is presented as a counter to the plans of Bolivar Trask, who offers a different, aggressive approach to dealing with those powered individuals who have begun appearing in news accounts. The shocked expressions of both men (the exception being Mr. Hartfield's casual introduction) indicate the arrival of the hideous entrance of Lyle Doorne, aka Virus, whose mobility depends on grafting onto and gradually draining the life of a human host--a mutant who assures them that it can neutralize the threat presented by Logan and Creed and add them to the government's ranks in "controlled" form.

As for Duncan, he continues his own efforts in these early days of his career... encountering Logan and his group as they attempt to recruit the (at this point in time) vagrant Sub-Mariner... butting heads with Trask... and unknowingly crossing paths with Xavier when he was a private in the army while the government had yet to make their investigations into the growing population of mutants public.

Regrettably, Logan's efforts implode, and, demoralized, he washes his hands of the entire debacle and goes his own way--but not before Duncan takes a last stab at bringing him into the fold in a more formal capacity.

* * *

While each of these later series in their own way brings us full circle, Adams' series of course finds a way to blend in new material which serves to start the ball rolling on what would become a distinguished career of public service for Duncan. It's gratifying to see such attention paid to what essentially amounted to a footnote in the history of the X-Men, and fortunately these stories were told at a time before Marvel began to so radically reinvent its print product. As for Agent Duncan making it to the big screen, the closest we come to Duncan appearing in film was with the character's uncredited portrayal by actor Oliver Platt in "X-Men: First Class"--a C.I.A. man in his new role, but an adjustment that we know Fred Duncan would have taken in stride.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Nameless Ones


The Avengers known as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are of course two of Marvel's most classic characters--introduced in 1964 in an issue of The X-Men, which would have the pair closing in on the same sixty-year anniversary that the X-Men will join them in celebrating. Yet as Pietro and his sister, Wanda, step up to the podium and give a speech commemorating their decades of service in Marvel Comics, imagine their introduction going something like this:

"And now, ladies and gentleman, please welcome Wanda and Pietro... uh, Wanda and Pietro..."

In short: Will our bemused presenter have to fumble for a last name for these two, or cut to commercial?

The Scarlet Witch and her brother have been blessed with a number of retellings of their backstory, though the basics are not in dispute--their youth spent as gypsies in Europe, only to come under attack by superstitious villagers who reacted to Wanda's accidental use of her power that caused a number of cottages to erupt in flames. The master of magnetism, Magneto, stepped in and saved their lives from the worked-up townspeople, which unfortunately placed Wanda and her brother in his debt and obligated them to become part of his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Yet there was no mention of their parents that day; for a time, we were left to assume that they were orphans. Eventually, however, their parents were introduced to readers--but as it turned out, Wanda and Pietro would have several sets of parents to choose from.

Which is our introduction to another

Marvel Trivia Question

Which couples laid claim to the parentage of Wanda and Pietro [INSERT LAST NAME HERE]?

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Power Begets Power


Amid all the battles taking place between heroes and villains during the 1985-86 limited series Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, there were two characters who were instead more concerned with their own priorities in this strange setting they had been thrust into. For the world-devourer Galactus, his was to almost immediately seek out and confront this conflict's orchestrator, the Beyonder, and insist that this being use his clearly overwhelming and limitless power to end his endless craving for the life force of worlds; but for the infamous monarch of Latveria known as Dr. Doom, he, too, sought an opportunity to gain power for himself, having witnessed the great power which the Beyonder wielded to wipe out an entire galaxy as well as create a world on which the captured super-humans would battle.

The Beyonder would effortlessly rebuff both of them during the initial attempt of Galactus to breach the Beyonder's portal to his universe, and, from that point on, both would pursue their goals in their own way using their own methods: Galactus, by summoning his world-ship to facilitate his draining the planet of its life force (which would mean the deaths of all of those brought from Earth), and Doom, by turning his attention to the vast world-ship and its secrets. Finally, Doom's patience bore fruit, when Galactus, in preparation for facing the Beyonder once more, began consuming the incredible sources of energy which were available to him, starting with his world-ship.

Yet in his own preparations, Doom had secured the means by which he could take advantage of such a moment--and as the horrified onlookers on the planet fear the worst, Doom lays claim to nothing less than the power which Galactus looked to absorb himself!

In other words, Ms. Rambeau, it sucks to be you right now.

Given that Doom has always made bold claims of his "matchless mind" being able to adapt to situations that lesser men could not, it's fitting for writer Jim Shooter to show him having not so easy a time of it in attempting to keep his focus--and his sanity--regarding his own corporeal state of existence even as he struggles to cope with the perceptual shifts inundating him at these early moments of an entirely new existence. We're left to assume that Doom's prior experience in being able to absorb and control cosmic power has played some part in allowing him to weather the far, far greater flood of forces meant for the mind and body of Galactus--but we'll find his greater test in this regard is yet to come.

Yet even in as superior and overwhelming a state of being as he currently finds himself, there is still one other whose shadow falls over him (or, more to the point, in whose shadow he still remains), a realization that he cannot tolerate--and so he now girds himself for a winner-take-all struggle with the Beyonder, a contest which he has prepared for to a certain degree but will demand all the resources this man can bring to bear, just to stay alive.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Coming Of Galactus! The Rise Of Doom!


When it comes to Marvel's Bronze Age tales of the 1980s, I don't often come across raves or even much discourse regarding that period's notable and heavily promoted event, the 1984-85 twelve-issue limited series Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, which, at the time, was reportedly a financial success and sold more copies than any other comic in the previous twenty-five years. Almost nine years ago, the PPC featured its own review of the series as a whole--and while ultimately questioning the premise of the concept along with its outcome and immediate impact, there were also some positives to consider, though your own mileage may vary.

It seems clear that the story's selling point was in the select groupings of heroes and villains which were assembled on a newly-created planet to engage in a number of conflicts with each other, on a scale that went (forgive the word) beyond what could be found in regular monthly titles being published. (The scenarios being found in the 1977-1984 What If series, still being sold at the time, were perhaps the series' closest equivalent in that regard.) Yet if you look past the window dressing of the hero/villain battles (where, let's face it, only one group is going to be able to meet the Beyonder's condition to "slay your enemies" in order to claim the reward being offered), there were two characters in particular whose activities arguably made for more compelling reading--individuals who were literally worlds apart in power, but whose struggles coincided and came to overshadow the main focus on the heroes who were caught in the middle of it all.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

If It's Thursday, The Titles Are Fine!


Having adapted a particular title or well-known phrase for a post every now and then, it seems appropriate to tip my hat to the Marvel writer who indulged in the practice more than any other during his time with the company--Roy Thomas, whose stories were replete with titles which often recycled popular sayings or famous works of literature to suit whatever crisis was brewing for the Avengers, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the mighty Thor, or the uncanny X-Men.

Thomas was by no means unique in this respect; over seven years ago, there were a few other titles which the PPC featured in a similar roundup, though this time I wanted to shift the focus to a less critical review and just have a little fun with the results. ;)  Yet it bears mentioning that this grouping is much like the prior in that the titles which grace the splash pages you'll see mainly amount to elaborate puns and don't necessarily have anything to do with the content of the stories, even though our first instinct in most other works of fiction would be to be on the lookout for what sort of connection is being made between title and story. Here, where possible, we'll simply make reference to where the revised wording may be getting its inspiration from, and offer only mild speculation as to what it might mean for the issue's story and/or characters.

Starting off, however, how about the title which Thomas chose for a story from 1969--fifty years before the premier of Avengers: Endgame on the big screen, yet it happens to be the first use of the word "Endgame" in a Marvel comic and it just happens to appear in (you guessed it)... The Avengers.

Presumed reference: A chess term, dating back to the 1800s--denotes the stage of a game when most of the pieces have been removed from the board, and the final stage of the game begins.

The fact that Kang and the Grandmaster are using human "chessmen" to play out their game of "life or death," and that this issue is the final installment of a three-part story, of course makes this story's title completely apropos.

Monday, July 12, 2021

A Riotous Roundup of Enormous and Explicit Exclamations!


As many of us who grew up reading classic Marvel comics can attest, not only did comic books immerse us in a world of heroes and action-adventure, but we impressionable readers were also finding our minds stimulated in other ways as writers took the opportunity to slip in words and terms which had the curious among us reaching for our dictionaries. And so as a homage to those whose choice of words both intrigued and educated young minds, the PPC has gathered a few scenes from the past where language reigned supreme, and thereby lit the spark of interest and creativity in others.

(A few sparks were flying in that paragraph alone!)

No doubt some of you have your own examples of weighty words which had you flipping the pages of your Webster's as a kid, so I hope you'll chime in with your own. As for myself, here are some instances which came to mind--starting with one which seemed to be all over the place, and often applied to a certain green goliath (or those he battled).

behemoth - a huge or monstrous creature

To this day I still find myself sometimes mentally pronouncing this as a two-syllable word (BEE-moth), when in fact it's pronounced with three, with the accent on the second. Interestingly enough, I have never had occasion to use this word in a sentence--but to see it bandied about in print, you'd think it was common usage. (We should all probably count our blessings that we never found ourselves in situations where the word behemoth was being applied.)

Many red-blooded males surely thought of a few words to describe the vivacious Mary Jane Watson, but I can almost guarantee that one word brought to life by Stan Lee never occurred to us, even though it's completely applicable in MJ's case:

pulchritudinous - beautiful

Wow, Mr. Lee--with such a vocabulary to draw on while introducing yourself to a beautiful woman, your dating life must have resembled something out of "The Grapes Of Wrath."

Thanks to Lee and others, the esteemed villain Dr. Doom also provided more than a few ten-dollar words in his path toward domination:

atavism - a reversion to something ancient or ancestral (i.e., a throwback)

misanthrope - a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society

escutcheon - a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms

Granted, all of Doom's references apply to the Thing in one way or another, but Lee coming up with a "blot on the escutcheon of humanity" feels like it deserves some sort of commendation for the effort.

When it comes to villains, of course, the Mandarin isn't about to be left out of this lineup:

munificent - larger or more generous than is usual or necessary

Another word had the distinction of being exclaimed by villains and aliens alike (that is to say, alien villains):

poltroon or recreant - an utter coward
paal·TROON, REH·kree·uhnt

As Doom demonstrates, it looks like you can use the word "coward" even in instances where it doesn't appear to apply. (Well, at least Doom can, and I'm not about to call him on it.) As for the Super-Skrull, he's really piling it on, using three words which essentially mean the same thing--where any of us who called someone a "cowardly coward!" would look like we were at a loss for words.

The Skrulls are particularly adept at hurling epithets when they're furious--and being Skrulls, it's good to be reminded that they're not restricted to using our pitiful vocabulary when they have their own insulting terms for their foes, or their subordinates.

pronunciation unavailable

The pursuer in question does indeed catch up with the Skrull ship--which means that our unfortunate helmsman had a thousand agonies to look forward to after their mission, which didn't even go all that well for them.

Speaking of someone being at a loss for words, such a phrase might be difficult to apply to Hank McCoy, the Beast, an X-Man who can inject his own verbiage at the drop of a hat (or a threat).

efficacious - effective

perspicacity - having a ready insight into things

sagacious - showing keen mental discernment and good judgment

prodigious - remarkably or impressively great in extent, size, or degree

capricious - given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior

propitious - favorable

Cut from the same cloth would be our plucky agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jasper Sitwell, who tended to try the patience of Tony Stark but proved his worth on many an occasion.

vituperation - bitter and abusive language

You said a mouthful, security officer. (No small feat in this crowd.)

Even our vice-president from 1972, Spiro Agnew, had a tendency to inject a few lengthy words into his comments, which daunted even his Commander-In-Chief:

But the hands-down head-scratcher award for the most unlikely word to pass one's lips goes to Roy Thomas, who took a five-syllable, ungainly word and dispensed it among a number of characters.  Decades later, it also happens to show up in an announcement celebrating Stan The Man's 95th birthday.

brobdingnagian - gigantic

Which concludes this not so brobdingnagian sampling of vociferous mouthings that brought new perspective to our heroes and villains and gave our brain cells a pretty decent workout while enjoying their stories.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

This Elf Is Packing


For a little over a year during the mid-1970s, readers of The Defenders were introduced to an ongoing, head-scratching sub-plot involving a character which appeared to have nothing to do with the principal characters of the book, or, for that matter, anything or anyone else. Created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Sal Buscema, the Elf with a gun, as it came to be known, received a brief profile in the PPC eight years ago which dealt with its baffling modus operandi and mission; yet it seems negligent not to have also included each of his unfortunate victims, none of whom would appear to be relevant or of particular importance to any Marvel story except as unknowing, unsuspecting targets.

Four victims in all--the last of which didn't even merit a name, and, for what it's worth, the only one who even indirectly crosses paths with one of the Defenders. I could find no direct quote in which Gerber expresses his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of his homicidal creation, though reportedly he remarked words to the effect of the Elf being "a backhanded metaphor for the chaotic and inexplicable nature of everyday existence," which, if accurate, begs the question of just what he had in mind for bringing this character to fruition in The Defenders. Of course, it all became moot following Gerber's departure, when, in 1977, the character was unceremoniously and summarily dealt out of the book by writers Roger Slifer and David Kraft (while, appropriately, being completely unrelated to the main story).

The reaction from readers, as you might expect, ran the gamut.

In a later series of stories, however (published well after Gerber had left the book), writer J.M. DeMatteis provided the diminutive assassin with a backstory that explained its actions and purpose as an agent of the mysterious group known as the Tribunal, whose goal was to pinpoint the cause of Earth's future destruction. Unfortunately for the Defenders, that would mean a few more casualties in the crosshairs of this Elf with a gun.

Yet it turns out that there were no casualties to speak of at all--only displacement, as a member of the Tribunal elaborates on during the group's confrontation of the core Defenders. Coincidentally or not, the issue in which we learn the answer to the mystery of the Elf is published seven years to the month after Gerber's last scripted appearance of the character.

We see that even the Tribunal can get its facts wrong, since it omits two people from its listing of "victims" while giving the name of another ("Richard Kessler") whom our Elf never paid a visit to.

A curious footnote to this story arrives nearly thirteen years later in 1996, when Gerber returns to Marvel for an assignment on Spider-Man Team-Up--a story that involves Peter Parker, Ben Reilly (as Spider-Man), Maynard Tiboldt (better known as the Ringmaster), the Circus of Crime... and an Elf with a gun, the nephew of the elf who was mowed down while getting a bead on our paper boy Greg.

This being the mid-1990s, Gerber's tale is as chaotic as Marvel itself was during those years, so I'll leave it to you to sift through the full story. You might as well know beforehand, though, that this new elf's story is left unresolved--which you'll probably agree is par for the course.