Monday, February 28, 2022

"The Monstrous Master Plan of the Mandarin!"


OR: "It's Every Avenger For Himself!"

It was probably about five years past its original publication date of September, 1967* that I purchased a copy of the first Avengers Annual--a bargain at 10¢ from a used book store and, surprisingly, no missing pages, though its cover was tattered having apparently been passed around a bit. In those days, I was still collecting comics solely for the reading experience rather than with any intent to preserve them, so I considered the store owner's pile of late '60s comics (yes, a literal pile where old comics were tossed) quite a find in my area. That copy has since been bagged and boarded, even in its near-dilapidated state--a reminder of more innocent times, with no thought given to seeking out a more presentable copy to shelve by its side.

*The Annual's story takes place at the time of issues 43-44 of the regular series.

Of course, that eye-catching cover by regular Avengers artist John Buscema--along with the cover of the book's second annual in '68--unfortunately carried the distinction of being an example of textbook bait-and-switch, with Buscema's cover art being used to sell the annual while artwork by former book artist Don Heck awaited the reader within. Yet considering that the annual took four years from the series' launch to appear on the stands, and given that it clocks in at a whopping forty-nine pages (not including a few pages of bonus material), its story by Heck and writer Roy Thomas, featuring a fiendish plot by the Mandarin that included a host of past Avengers villains, was likely well received (though your mileage may vary if you opened the issue at home and were looking forward to Buscema handling the story).

(Yikes! No wonder the Avengers are in danger--their foes have become giants! Not to worry, however--this first page of the issue proudly took its place among other symbolic splash pages the Avengers were featured in.)

It's indeed the return of the Mandarin that happens to involve Iron Man in this story, as he responds to the prison breakout of Arthur Parks, the Living Laser (who faced the Avengers in his debut toward the end of 1966). And when Iron Man discovers that Parks might be working with his old enemy, he has sufficient cause to alert the team that he took a leave of absence from over two years prior.

Meanwhile, we're given a peek at the cause of Parks' mysterious disappearance, which proves that the Mandarin is indeed still alive--and whatever he's planning now, it will involve several other super-powered hirelings, as well as a device which will bring him closer than ever to world conquest.

(No, I don't know why Parks, teleported in his prison uniform, arrives at the Mandarin's lair in costume--and an upgrade from his old outfit, at that. My short answer is that the Mandarin may have been averse to having anyone else around him wearing a cape, and arranged to have his teleportation device outfit Parks in transit.  Somehow.)

As for the Avengers, they're also contacted by Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., who requests their assistance with worldwide attacks that are out of SHIELD's jurisdiction as an American agency. (The "International Law Enforcement" part of his organization's acronym apparently having slipped his mind.)

The Mandarin doesn't look too worried, does he? He seems to be embracing the time-tested phrase "divide and conquer"--and before long, the Avengers will find themselves included in that adage.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Captain America No More!


In July of 1974, the culmination of a Captain America storyline by writer Steve Englehart and artist Sal Buscema finally hit the stands, at which time it arguably became one of the most memorable and engaging tales to be published in the title. Its plot, which all in all took a year to play out (with Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, and Mike Friedrich assisting with scripting), spoke to both corruption and conspiracy, and essentially put this question to the reader: How would Captain America fare against a media campaign designed to turn public opinion against him? Given Cap's high standing with the public at the time, such a venture might have been considered a nonstarter--but as Jordan Dixon, alias the Viper, put it, "Never underestimate the power of advertising. For the majority of the public, 'all they know is what they read in the papers'--or see on television!" (An assessment which has since added the Internet to the list, surely.)

Dixon gets the ball rolling by phoning his crooked partner in the ad business, Quentin Harderman, and telling him to begin a campaign to discredit Cap and tarnish his name--and so to Cap's astonishment, the first public service announcement by the so-called Committee to Regain America's Principles (I'm sure you can piece together the resulting acronym) is aired.

To add fuel to the fire, Harderman (along with his accomplice, Moonstone) would also go on to frame Cap for murder, in full view of witnesses--at which point Cap refuses to be taken into custody and flees the scene.

As difficult as it is to imagine such behavior from Captain America (jeez, Cap, Iron Man managed to deal with similar circumstances without alienating the law--yet you, of all people, cut and run?), Cap has become caught up in a web where he begins to justify being both a fugitive and, later, even a thief. But by the time of this story's well-anticipated conclusion, his road has led him to the White House, where enemy forces have arrived to demand control over the entire country--and the lies doled out by Harderman's "Committee" are far from over!

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Crushed Plans of the Master Planner!


As time permits, I've been slowly working my way back through the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man issues produced during 1963-66, and one such story has always been on my radar to sit down and read. Having finally done so, it's *ahem* amazing how well it stands the test of time fifty-six years after it first hit the stands, as it does a fine job at hitting all the right notes for both the wall-crawler as well as Peter Parker as far as what made them both unique in Marvel's growing stable of characters during that period. This was a time when Peter Parker hit his stride as someone readers could identify with, a character who experienced growing pains and even hardships which seemed ever-present when his uncle was killed and he became the sole source of income for himself and his elderly Aunt May. And though he originally had every intention otherwise, becoming Spider-Man did not improve Peter's lot in life; on the contrary, often his alter-ego complicated things for him and made his life even more difficult to manage, all thanks to a sense of responsibility that he would not disavow.

It's fair to say that it was Peter's struggles in life which likely attracted a good deal of the book's readership; and it's Spider-Man's growth as a character in tandem with his (yes) amazing abilities which helped to offset the seemingly one-step-forward/two-steps-back life of Peter Parker and give him a sense of purpose and even accomplishment that a reader can't help but envy. All of these facets of the character are on display in Amazing Spider-Man #33, where Peter is depended upon as never before to come through for his family, and for himself--a physical and emotional struggle which you may find does a masterful job of gripping the reader, as well.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Fantastic 3¾


Where YOU Weigh In on the Pros and Cons of a Character's New Attire

Ben Grimm, the Thing   

Technically, the orange-scaled contraption which Ben is extricating himself from here was referred to as an "exoskeleton," but I think most of us probably shorthanded it as simply "the Thing suit"--an invention of Reed Richards which allowed Ben to once more take his place on the Fantastic Four as the Thing after lengthy exposure to the Hulk's gamma radiation reverted him to his human form (a situation not without its degree of tension). It took some doing, but Ben got the hang of being in the Thing's "skin" in short order, with a little guidance from his best friend.

The Thing suit was the brainchild of writer Roy Thomas, and put through its paces for a period of eight issues during March-October of 1976 before being summarily kiboshed near the end of Thomas's run on the book. In that time, we learned that it could also double as a spacesuit, even holding up against a bruiser like the Destroyer (infused with the essence of Galactus, no less):

It also didn't depend upon its wearer's freedom of movement for its removal, which would come in handy on those occasions when restraints were used on the FF:

Oddly enough, the Thing suit was conspicuously absent from the Thing's other series at the time, Marvel Two-In-One, thanks to a timely Editor's note which stated the tales in question took place before FF #166 (the culmination of the FF's battle with the Hulk). The only exceptions were by necessity--specifically, Thomas's time travel crossover stories which began in the 1976 FF Annual, continued in the '76 MTIO Annual, and concluded in MTIO #20.

If memory serves, the only other cameo the suit makes in that time is during an Avengers story which centers on a new lineup for the team. By that time, Ben has apparently grown so comfortable with the suit that we even find him lounging in it.

But finally, during the FF's dealings with the High Evolutionary and Galactus on the world known as Counter-Earth, the writing is on the wall for this exoskeleton when the suited Thing is struck by Galactus--a blast which doesn't take its toll until later, causing the Thing suit to bite the dust.

Despite the evidence of our eyes, however, the suit is not as demolished as it appears. Thirteen years later, in the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover that plays out in sixteen annuals published in 1989, we learn in a story scripted by Thomas that the suit has simply been in storage all that time.

(With Thomas evidently not feeling like providing a more detailed explanation of its reappearance, we're left to presume that Reed took what was left of the suit and constructed a new one in his spare time.)

Writer/artist Walt Simonson also featured the suit during his run on the FF book:

As it turned out, the suit would receive quite a bit of mileage, going on to be seen in a number of other titles in addition to its FF appearances. With Ben regaining his normal status often enough to warrant pulling the suit out of mothballs, however, we might be able to conclude that Marvel had by that time decided to leave behind the so-called tragic aspect of the Thing--the one member of the FF who was trapped in a monstrous form and prevented forever from living a normal life. And if you were lamenting the loss of the genuine Thing and didn't care for the precedent of FF characters using artificial means to duplicate their powers, Thomas prefers to instead address the issue in a corporate sense:

So it's time to deliver your verdict on "the Thing suit"--
an invention that let Ben Grimm have his cake and eat it, too.

OR: ?

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Tenacious Return Of The Terrifying Toad-Men!


There are few if any conquering races more entertaining than the terrifying Toad Men, the Ferengi of space-faring conquerors who seem to strive to be taken seriously (even in light of their obvious power and resources)--aggressors that take what they want, when they want, and no two ways about it. These wily characters, with weaponry based on the power of directed magnetism, were introduced in mid-1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and, after a failed attempt to conquer Earth, now return thirteen years later, once more in the pages of Incredible Hulk--the passage of time apparently not having dimmed their lust for conquest in the slightest.

As we can see, this two-part story introduces the character of Glorian, whose origin would be later retconned by writer Bill Mantlo but who for now appears in the company of the Shaper of Worlds, another Hulk-based figure who searches for those whose dreams he can fulfill, regardless of the lives which might be impacted as a result. It's Glorian who now serves as both the Shaper's muse of sorts, as well as his conscience insofar as providing a more focused purpose for this massive alien's power.

The Hulk, of course, remains a font of unfulfilled dreams of a better life for himself--and when Glorian entreats him to leave the Earth (via rainbow--what else?) to realize those dreams at last, the man-monster finds the door has opened wide to his dreams and beckoned his long-sought happiness.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Marvel Style Of Comics


Having gone down memory lane recently with a certain armored arch-villain, it seems fitting to shed some light on some of Marvel's relentless house ads, which were unavoidable when turning the pages of stories published during the Silver and Bronze Age periods. On occasion, such ads featured new art tailored to the caption(s) provided; but often it was one's skill with existing art placement, combined with whatever copy had been prepared and the creativity of the letterer, which were depended on to make the ad come alive and tempt the reader.

Of course, whatever form the final product took, looking over the copy was almost a reading experience in itself--at times even tapping into whatever was trending in pop culture at the time.

Hopefully Sonny and Cher were Marvel fans and didn't object to the for-profit allusion to their song title. On the bright side, the company was in the clear when tapping the drug culture with a blatant reference to the "Marvel mind explosion," daddy-o.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Favorite Scenes: Doctor Doom!


This new series came about from doing what any comics reader might find him- or herself doing when a certain character comes to mind--reminiscing about those scenes in which that character appeared, which often led to pulling out those issues and thumbing through those pages once more. In the case of Dr. Doom, arguably one of the most memorable characters in this medium, it seems like he and I are thinking along the same lines. (Though the comparison stops there.)

This armored man, once called a "living enigma" by the Sub-Mariner, became shaped by the tragic and harsh events of his past, going on to become one of the most dangerous figures in Marvel's line of comics. Following are some of the more memorable moments of his nefarious life which stood out for me, though you'll no doubt have a few of your own to add to this digital "scrapbook" of the good Doctor's exploits.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Machinations of the Intelligencia!


Early 2010 saw the introduction of the Intelligencia, a group of villains who pooled their talents to make acquisitions of rarity and value and assist each other when needed, as well as stepping in to manipulate events with an eye on reaping benefits down the road. Comprised of the Leader, M.O.D.O.K., Dr. Doom, the Red Ghost, the Wizard, the Thinker, and Egghead, the group was not "a team," as such--"more an irregular collective, sharing information, and when necessary, taking it," as the Leader put it.

If their collective name sounds familiar, you may be remembering a previous Captain Marvel character from nearly a decade before these mental masters made their debut:

As opposed to the cover caption, the story adds a "t" to the Skrull entity's name. We can only wonder if some future incarnation of Not Brand Echh would have either the Intelligencia or Intelligentsia make a point of correcting the other and what such a meeting might entail. It doesn't seem likely that reaching an impasse on the subject would be an option acceptable to either camp.

The Intelligencia were used as a spearhead to launch the Fall Of The Hulks mega-crossover event, numbering 15+ issues published over a span of five months--a reading list not for the faint of heart.

As for their first foray into "taking" information when they deemed it necessary, we meet the Intelligencia as they scour the globe searching for repositories of the until-now lost contents of the library of Alexandria, assumed to be destroyed in the fires set by Julius Caesar's men in 48 BC. The narrative we find in the scene belongs to the Leader, who in hindsight informs us that this undertaking would eventually lead to the end of the Intelligencia.