Thursday, June 30, 2022

More Than Human


At first glance, this doesn't appear to be an individual to trifle with:

After all, anyone who raises a fist and tells Satan off is generally someone to steer clear of--especially when that person embodies the power of Dracula, the lord of vampires. But what if you were to learn that the haughty person standing on the precipice of this skyscraper, seeking to get some of his own back--is, instead, human?

Well, you'd probably call 911 and report a guy who looks like he's off his rocker and may be a jumper--but in our case, we know that Dracula is in a pitiable, all-too-human state, having been subjected to no small amount of humiliation and frustration due to Satan's transformation of him, not to mention escaping near-death from an aggrieved father as well as his own daughter.

To understand how he incurred Satan's notice and his wrath, we look back to when the still-vampire lord found himself standing before a very angry prince of darkness, who looked upon Dracula as a means to an end in terms of his own survival.

But there is more at work concerning Dracula's son, Janus, than even Satan is aware of--and the dark prince has miscalculated in his assumption that the removal of Dracula's threat would in turn trigger Janus's departure from Earth.

Monday, June 27, 2022

When Dies The Universe!


There probably isn't a comics reader alive who hasn't come across a story where a character appears to have or actually has returned from the dead--but isn't this taking things a bit too far?

And guest-starring Death itself (uh, herself), as well?

Having already taken a look at the various lineups of the Legion of the Unliving, the PPC now throws a spotlight on the 1987 Avengers Annual, which concludes a two-part tale begun in the West Coast Avengers annual of the same year by Steve Englehart that played out in Death's realm and now culminates with a threat to the entire universe. As we can see, the Grandmaster has found a way to cheat Death after being consigned to that realm following the events of the Contest of Champions limited series five years prior--as we learned that even Death was unprepared for the wily strategy employed by this Elder of the Universe.

So, having essentially conquered Death, where does the Grandmaster go from here with his obsession with contests? Unfortunately, there is only one arena, and one prize, now worthy of his interest--and he makes use of the realm of Death to supply his game pieces.

For this annual, Tom DeFalco takes over as scripter--but in an interesting deviation from the WCA tale, aside from the five Avengers teams that form to tackle the threat there are also artist "teams" assigned to this story's various chapters which offer a rare opportunity to see a number of different penciler/inker combinations, a development we owe to either a last-minute shuffle to meet a deadline or (presumably) a decision from the book's editor, Mark Gruenwald. In all but one chapter, you'll likely see more of the influence of the inker, given that the penciler limits himself to breakdowns--while bookending the tale features the work of Bob Hall and Tom Palmer.

As for the Legion of the Unliving, it's easy enough to accept the malicious instincts of those villains who are present in this particular lineup--but what throws off the concept is that, as with previous incarnations, there is no reluctance whatsoever on the part of Nighthawk, the Swordsman, Captain Marvel, Bucky, and the Golden Age Black Knight in falling in with the rest and being just as out for blood as their fellow corpses. Even the Executioner, who nobly sacrificed himself and ended his life with honor, is given a cobbled-together reason for going after Thor with a murderous vengeance--while Bucky apparently harbors resentment toward Captain America for failing to protect him from the explosion which caused his death. As for the Legion's opponents, you can expect many pairings to make sense from a commercial standpoint, though there are a few which will be unexpected and fresh to the eye.

So let's break it all down.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Favorite Scenes: Mister Fantastic!


As the leader of the world's most famous super-team, Reed Richards--aka the one and only Mister Fantastic--is arguably the face of the Fantastic Four and front and center in the FF's dealings with both heroes and villains as well as the general public and the government. And so taking account of the fact that the PPC has already thrown a spotlight on Ben Grimm, the Thing, by profiling our favorite "Clobberin' Time" moments, Mister Fantastic was an easy choice for this sort of post which takes him out of that lab of his and lets him stretch his legs. (Ha ha! Get it?)

In addition, since we only rarely get to hear Mister Fantastic's action name in use when in the field (we can say the same for the Invisible Girl/Woman), we're only going to refer to him as Mister Fantastic for the duration, just to get an idea of how that might have looked and "sounded" in print. We may all become tired of it before long--probably because it's hard to imagine someone as level-headed and unpretentious as Re... whoops, Mister Fantastic to have chosen "Mister Fantastic" as the name for himself right out of the box. Let's also hope that it wasn't Mister Fantastic who coined his team's name*, since it conveys the disturbing implication that he wanted it to be "Mister Fantastic's Fantastic Four."

*It had to be one of the team, given that no one in the general public recognized the name when it appeared in the team's first flare which signaled that it was time to go into action for the first time. Michael France and Mark Frost, writers of the 2005 film, seem to think that person was Johnny Storm.

To cut to the chase, if I had to pick my favorite Mister Fantastic scene, it would be when a so-called monster was roaming the streets of New York, forcing Mister Fantastic to interrupt a critical experiment that involved returning the Thing to his human form in order to deal with the crisis. In this scene we get the complete Mister Fantastic package--decisively acting to save lives, assessing the situation, multitasking when one of his team is in danger, and setting his priorities on how to handle things from here.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Death To The Son Of Loki!


In the pages of Mighty Thor, we've twice seen the fulfilling of prophecy regarding the appearance of Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent--the final foe to burst forth on the dreaded day of Ragnarok, and the creature who is fated to bring about the death of Thor and precede the final, monumental explosion which causes the end of Asgard and all who dwell within. In addition, Jormungand arrived on cue during Odin's plan to fulfill the prophecy's signs himself, so that the conditions of Ragnarok were met but in a way which did not bring about the devastating climax.

As a prelude to that particular story arc, we learn of a time in Thor's past when the Thunder God decided to try to cheat fate (or, in this case, the Norn Fates) by taking on the Serpent earlier than the prophecy foretold--yet Hymir, the giant who accommodates his request to bait a creature without having full knowledge of what Thor intended, doesn't share his passenger's desire for an early confrontation of the Serpent, and certainly not an early death.

And yet, Jormungand, the offspring of Loki (I can't even imagine the mechanics involved in that delivery), is not present when Ragnarok finally does occur. To understand why, we have to turn to artist/writer Walt Simonson's take on the final battle between the Serpent and the God of Thunder which took place in mid-1987--fittingly, near the end of Simonson's run on the title. But as we see, there appears to be another monstrous, tailed, snorting form involved in that story--that of Fin Fang Foom, who has received a good deal of exposure of late in the PPC and whom we've learned Jormungand used as a disguise during his meeting with an unknown warrior that he'd hoped would lead him to Thor. And Thor played along, to a point--but when misconceptions turned to shocking revelations, the die was cast.

Which brings us to the final, destined meeting between Thunder God and Serpent--its unscheduled, flying-in-the-face-of-prophecy nature serving to heighten the tension between both combatants while making this bout a page-turner in more ways than one.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Dragon Seed Saga!


In 1991, John Byrne, the writer for the Invincible Iron Man title, began a one-year story arc which focused on essentially three things: the deteriorating condition of Tony Stark, his entire nervous system compromised by an aggrieved engineer using the resources of a ruthless corporation... the ascendance of one of Iron Man's oldest and deadliest foes, the Mandarin... and establishing the origin of a Marvel character which dated back thirty years. And while all of these things cross paths either indirectly or otherwise, we begin with the latter two characters who meet due to the involvement of one other: Chen Hsu, by all appearances an aged wizard who helps the Mandarin to recover his memories and subsequently brings him to the Valley of the Sleeping Dragon in southeastern China, in order to awaken a dreaded creature the PPC has only recently profiled.

Whatever passed between the Mandarin and Fin Fang Foom from that point was presumably not for our eyes and ears, but it was apparently convincing enough to rouse the dragon from his chamber and meet in force an army of 3,000 soldiers sent in response to the Mandarin's incursion into the dragon's resting place--even as the Mandarin and Chen Hsu, calmly observing the death and devastation which followed, come to an understanding between them.

And "romp" our dragon most definitely will during this saga.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

The Fiery, Blustering History of Fin Fang Foom!


One has only to look at Marvel's "spec sheet" for our featured character today to get an idea of the long history and hidden appeal of Fin Fang Foom, a sentient dragon which dates back to 1961 (specifically, one month before the launch of Fantastic Four #1) and who went on to become a powerful threat as well as displaying an unexpected talent for comic relief. You never knew which you were going to get in picking up a Fin Fang Foom story, but you could count yourself lucky if you ended up with both.

Fin fittingly found his first footing (if writer Stan Lee can find a use for alliteration, it's fair game for all of us) in Strange Tales, one of Marvel's late-'50s/early-'60s mags tasked with churning out monster/mystery stories with covers designed to sell fear and danger to the comics browser--yet you can't help but wonder if Fin creators Lee and Jack Kirby were even then seeing Fin's potential for more, given the story's absurd "catch me if you can" theme which had this dragon lumbering after a taunting human he aimed to slay, a ludicrous premise when we're talking about a monster that can not only cover more ground with a single step than its quarry can with fifty but whose wings also give him the power of flight.

The issue's colorist (reportedly Stan Goldberg) also appears to be in on the joke, seemingly undecided on what Fin's coloring should be and giving the reader both at no additional cost:

Fin's predecessor, Grogg, had a similar affliction regarding his covers:

As to Fin's story, it focuses on a young man, Chan Liuchow, whose home on the island of Formosa is facing imminent invasion by the red Chinese and who declines to follow his brother's example of suiting up for military service in favor of investigating and making use of an old legend that could drive back the enemy--providing he survives the encounter.

Monday, June 6, 2022

"The Woman Who Never Was!"


Having collected and read the entirety of the Marvel Team-Up title from the '70s, I suppose I feel as qualified as anyone to say that, in terms of hit and miss, its stories generally tipped into the latter category for me while they shoe-horned Spider-Man, the standard bearer of the book, into a meeting/partnership with a different character each month. That said, there were a number of gems that were quite readable, some of which even stood out as page turners--in fact, you and I would probably be able to compile a "top 10" list of stories if we put our minds to it. (A potentially interesting topic for a future post, I dare say.)

In your own listing, I hope you make room for a four-part story from 1979 by Chris Claremont and Sal Buscema which, like other MTU multi-parters, drew in more than one guest-star to heighten the story's development and ramp up interest, which had the added benefit of spicing up the cover masthead with the naming of a new player with each installment. In its opening pages, things start off with an attempted mugging of a lady who seems out of sorts in her life, an attempt foiled by Spider-Man--but when the wall-crawler literally slips up and leaves himself open for certain death, our damsel in distress proves to be far more than the confused and helpless person we first laid eyes on.

Obviously distraught, the woman who by all appearances is the Black Widow gains the sympathy of Spider-Man, who makes allowances for the possibility he could be wrong about her and tries to help her collect herself. In the process, he learns her name and her occupation--but for himself, and the woman who calls herself "Nancy Rushman," the mystery of her identity only deepens with unsubstantiated assertions which call her story into question.

Since Spider-Man has noticed that the Widow's costume is insulated*, he suggests she put it on (with hopes that it might jog her memory). Yet Nancy's calm insistence of her own identity only raises doubts with the reader (which makes sense at this early stage of the story) that, despite appearances, she is the former Russian spy we and Spider-Man recognize.

*Something Spider-Man might consider for his own costume--how does he bear the frigid winds of winter while web-swinging through the city at such high altitudes?

Resigned to pick up the pieces of her life, Nancy prepares to change back into her clothes and part company with Spider-Man. Which is when all hell breaks loose, and a thus far unassuming story explodes into new, violent territory.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

...As A City Goes Mad!


Two issues into his notable run on The Defenders, writer Steve Gerber was continuing the effort by Len Wein to mainstream this non-team following the disbanding of the original group and chart a course for the individual characters the two had inherited: Dr. Strange, the Valkyrie, the Hulk, and Nighthawk. It had been non-stop action with Wein--but Gerber had almost immediately shown signs of balancing the adventures of the group with character development while also including elements of the bizarre, a Gerber trait.

Essentially, Gerber was having to deal with a grouping similar to the original, with the Valkyrie's strength compensating for the absence of the Sub-Mariner while her gender and Asgardian connection helped her to avoid the redundant aspect of Namor vis-à-vis the Hulk. As for Nighthawk, a charter member of the Squadron Sinister, the Defenders offered a break from his previous status as a villain, remaking his image after choosing to ally himself with the group following their prior conflict with his former group. It was likely felt that with the Hulk's continued presence, buyers would continue to show interest in the title--and so it fell to Gerber to chart a new course for the Defenders which, while now a bona fide part of the Marvel universe, didn't necessarily have them adhering to traditional protocols. (Though it wasn't for lack of trying on Nighthawk's part.)

In this particular story, Gerber begins a recurring plot which will culminate in the first (and only) Defenders Annual twenty issues later. But what of the characters? With Strange and the Hulk already firmly established, that leaves him with Nighthawk (aka Kyle Richmond, head of Richmond Enterprises) and the Valkyrie, who has begun to inquire into the life of Barbara Norris, the woman her essence currently inhabits.