Monday, January 30, 2023

The Recurring Avenger


Fairly early in their career (around the late 1960s), the Avengers had certain misgivings about offering membership to Natalia Alianovna "Natasha" Romanova, better known in espionage circles as the Black Widow, in part because of her various activities in her femme fatale days that saw her joining forces with the Swordsman and Power Man but also those instances where she followed directives to commit acts of sabotage and theft against Tony Stark's munitions plant. But even after coming to terms with her past and defecting from the Soviet Union, her covert missions on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. tended to raise suspicion that she was once again acting in accordance with directives from her former government--a likelihood that even the man she was seeing romantically (Hawkeye, himself an Avenger) couldn't disprove as he was also kept in the dark about her missions.

For a time, then, the Avengers' loss was Nick Fury's gain, as SHIELD continued to benefit from her skill set as a spy. Eventually, however, Natasha changed course, gave herself a new look and lapsed into the life of an international jet-setter before deciding to pursue individual adventures as the Black Widow, and, later, a partnership (and romantic involvement) with Daredevil. And when the time came when the Avengers were seeking assistance in battling the threat of Magneto, the two agreed to help out in the pinch--after which, membership was offered to both, but only Natasha accepted, if only briefly.

For after the team met and defeated an attack from the Lion God, their newest member had second thoughts about remaining.

Such admissions (much like those of Spider-Man in his early days of pursuing Avengers membership) seemed to close the door on Natasha ever choosing to rejoin the Avengers in an active capacity; nevertheless, for a time, several writers of the book continued to flirt with the notion in one way or another, particularly after her relationship with Daredevil had run its course.

Which is our cue to flirt with another

Marvel Trivia Question

When did the Black Widow finally rejoin the Avengers lineup?

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Accept The Word Of One Who Knows


As a fan of the original Guardians of the Galaxy since their inception, I was bound to take an interest in Starhawk, the enigmatic individual who was folded into their ranks following the Earth's liberation from its conquerors, the Brotherhood of the Badoon. Created by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema and first appearing in The Defenders, this new character was appropriately given few details (if we can even use that word) to pique our interest. He described himself, for instance, as "the light, and the giver of light"... he has three young children, settled in an Earth-like environment on a dome-covered asteroid... he appears involved with a woman named Aleta, whom he communicates with via a computer console screen and describes in a way that implies more at work than a depth of feeling ("all that I am, all I can be, flows from her," a connection alluded to in Starhawk's later battle with Korvac)... and, perhaps most mysteriously, he often offers information and/or assurances to others on various matters of interest as "One Who Knows," a description which is often taken at face value though never accompanied by explanations regarding what or how.

Initially, we as readers are exposed to Starhawk when he appears on the Badoon homeworld to give aid to Maj. Vance Astro (one of the Guardians) and the Valkyrie (one of the Defenders) who have been transported there mistakenly. Yet once Starhawk has healed the Valkyrie of her injury suffered in this world's swamps on arrival, she and Astro find no sign of Earth's conquerors; instead, they discover their female progenitors, living separately in peace in an advanced civilization where they remain ignorant of the Brotherhood's activities of conquest throughout the galaxy.

Eventually, the Defenders are reunited, and set about their task of freeing the Earth from Badoon tyranny. But once Strange has mystically set free all of the imprisoned humans worldwide, Starhawk plays a crucial role in the Defenders cutting their mission short and returning to their own time period.

The "story for another time" that the narrative speaks of arrives a few months later in early 1976, where Gerber and artist Al Milgrom launch the Guardians in their own series of stories in Marvel Presents which, among other things, serve to further explore the character of Starhawk. In fact, we'd do well to keep in mind Maj. Astro's words* in that last panel, as they'll come to mean more than he and ourselves are, at present, aware of.

*Hint: Pay close attention to the verb.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Battleground: Detroit!


We've come to the conclusion of a five-part story arc in the pages of Invincible Iron Man that has a lot riding on the outcome--specifically, the fate of two worlds, threatened by the actions of a rogue Rigellian commander who will stop at nothing to gain power for himself and the empire of his own he craves. To that end, he has set his sights on Wundagore II, a planet which the New Men of the High Evolutionary have once again claimed as their own, but which the Colonizers under the command of the self-serving Arcturus have set their sights on.

With the two sides now in a state of war, the conflict has drawn in both Iron Man and his young apprentice, the Jack of Hearts, who have been separated in the exchange of hostilities: Iron Man having since joined the forces of the New Men, while Jack, on board the Rigellian flagship, has only recently learned the extent of Arcturus's perfidy regarding his betrayal of the Rigellian Grand Commissioner and the fact that he intentionally deceived those under his command. And now, Arcturus has threatened to attack Earth unless Jack supports him; but instead, Jack threatens to expose Arcturus's duplicity to his crew. It's at that point that the command ship is rocked by the combined attack of Iron Man and the New Men, and the battle to decide Wundagore's fate erupts.

Yet as this issue's cover reveals, Iron Man will have a greater part to play--against a pulverizing brute that once served as the enforcer of the will of Galactus!

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Marvelous Wizard Of Oz!


I was literally nonexistent when "The Wizard Of Oz" premiered in 1939, but caught it in one of its many (and, at the time, annual) reruns on the small screen. Bowled over by the story (adapted from L. Frank Baum's book), and captivated by the production, it was through the film that I also went on to became an admirer of select members of its cast--notably, Judy Garland (as Dorothy) and Margaret Hamilton (as the Wicked Witch of the West); but I was also appreciative of the work of Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion, its adjective unfortunately but affectionately forever linked to the character's name), Jack Haley (the Tin Man), and of course Frank Morgan (the Wizard) and Billie Burke (the muddled Good Witch of the North). In addition, as a viewer of "The Beverly Hillbillies" I came to learn that it was Buddy Ebsen who had first been chosen as the Scarecrow and recast as the Tin Man, before finally having to drop out of the production after falling ill from the aluminum dust in his makeup. (Hamilton would have her own mishap courtesy of the effects crew.)

So it may sound strange that I didn't give "MGM's Marvelous Wizard of Oz" the time of day when it was released in Treasury Edition format in 1975. A neo-comics collector at the time, I suppose my first-glance impression of the publication was that, having seen the film several times, a strict adaptation of it wasn't going to bring anything new to the table for me, even as an "Authorized Edition" (i.e., with the permission of MGM) of it. Only now can I appreciate the creative talents involved in its production--as well as the distinction it holds as the first joint publication of DC and Marvel Comics, which at first I assumed was due to the presence of DC letterer Gaspar Saladino (aka Lisa Petergreg), who worked steadily at the company since the 1950s (though also a Marvel freelancer). Stan Lee's brief* Soapbox promo on the subject made it seem wholly a Marvel production--but writer Roy Thomas would later provide additional info on the matter that illuminates DC Publisher Carmine Infantino's own efforts, as well as some other interesting tidbits.

*You might say the Oz entry could barely get a word in edgewise. During 1975, Lee unashamedly smothered his Soapbox space with incessant announcements of his "Origins of Marvel Comics" book, to say nothing of including review clippings for it as well as teasers for its sequel.

Having seen this issue now for the first time, I must say that it's a fine effort from all involved. Thomas (who was right about Buscema's recollection of the film being spot on) does his usual first-rate work; Buscema and his art team ("the Tribe," aka Tony DeZuniga's studio), along with colorist Glynis Wein, have produced roughly eighty pages of material here; and Saladino, as expected, doesn't disappoint. Since this issue stays tightly true to the film presentation (as opposed to, for instance, Marvel's adaptation of "Star Wars"), a detailed review would be both unnecessary and redundant, especially when so many of you are familiar with the MGM production (and if you're not, I'd like a word with you :) ) -- and so I'll simply be presenting key scenes and keeping my comments brief. It really has been a treat to bring this to you, and I'll be interested in your own memories of it.

Monday, January 16, 2023

War For A World!


Given their extremely long life span, it was inevitable that the population of the planet Rigel would come to realize that at some point their numbers would begin to threaten their existence due to the finite space available on their world. And so they turned to colonization of other worlds in order to survive--and in time, that pursuit became their preoccupation, eventually leading them to Earth where one of their operatives, Tana Nile, laid claim to it. It was the intervention of Thor which foiled that plan, and, in so doing, led to the confrontation of the menace of Ego in the bio-verse of the Black Galaxy which the Rigellians feared would expand to engulf their own planet.

It was the encounter with Ego which inadvertently led to the Rigellians' attempt to use that being's unique properties to evolve heretofore unsuitable worlds into habitable planets that would ensure enough space for their ever-growing race in perpetuity. Yet that effort ended in disaster--and, months later, the Rigellians' greatest fears were realized when their home world was destroyed by the approach of the Black Stars (a coincidental play on words in light of their past dealings with the Black Galaxy), leading the Rigellians to undertake the most massive evacuation in their history in spacecraft that collectively housed nine billion of their people in close quarters. For a pioneering race, such a fate no doubt amounted to living their worst nightmare.

Which brings us to a six-issue arc of Invincible Iron Man from 1978, written by Bill Mantlo and featuring art by Carmine Infantino, Keith Pollard, Fred Kida, and Alfredo Alcala, which begins with the discovery of the Growing Man on Earth:

And since the Growing Man's former master, Kang, was believed to be deceased at the time, the search for its point of origin leads to the moon (thanks to the calculations of the Jack of Hearts, whom Iron Man has agreed to take on as an apprentice), where Soviet super-agents had previously arrived to investigate signals being emitted from a mysterious egg-shaped object now present on the surface.

When the same piercing sound that downed both their craft reoccurs, Iron Man and the Jack of Hearts race toward and penetrate the object, which transports them into deep space and a confrontation with Rigellian colonizers of unknown intent who react preemptively.

Uh oh--it seems Mr. Pollard has joined the ranks of Messrs. Buckler, Frenz, et al.!

Anyway, since Thor had no difficulty escaping from his own Colonizer-induced proton particle casing...

...Iron Man proves he's no slouch at the task, either, as we arrive along with himself and his card-motif companion at this story's third installment--hopefully to learn just what the Rigellians are up to!

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Earth's Mightiest Strike Team


It's been over twenty years since Marvel launched its new line of books based on familiar Marvel characters but whose lives and origins were recycled to exist in another universe--an effort spearheaded by the 2000 series Ultimate Spider-Man and the 2001 title Ultimate X-Men, before finally getting the Avengers on board as The Ultimates in 2002. It was a more piecemeal approach than was taken with the new universe titles (eight new books, all released as full-fledged series during October-November of 1986)--yet while that collection of titles had other things working against them (e.g., the exclusion of any other Marvel super-beings), the underlying concept of Marvel launching a sub-universe of comics titles within their long-standing Marvel Comics line was essentially the same, the difference being that the Ultimate books consisted of characters already familiar to readers for the most part.

There's no doubt that The Ultimates takes a more hawkish approach to a government-backed team concept than The Avengers, whose own government ties weren't disclosed until much later in the book's run. Described as a super-human defense initiative, the Ultimates operate under the umbrella of S.H.I.E.L.D.* and work in tandem with the division's forces as well as federal troops--while Tony Stark, happy to lend his expertise to the effort as long as he benefits financially and in a public relations capacity (or so he tells inquiring minds), also brings his new Iron Man armor to the party. Everyone is there to follow orders and go into missions by the numbers, with the Ultimates benefiting from support crews and armed forces backup.

*Taking a leaf from the "Heroes Reborn" reboot of The Avengers, which by contrast saw Fury and the team having a bumpier road in their working relationship and eventually leading to the Avengers declaring their independence.

And so with that in mind, what compels those on this team who bear the same names but have lives very different from their counterparts in the Avengers--Henry Pym, Clint Barton, Steve Rogers, Janet Pym, et al.--to sign on the dotted line of this "task force" we'll come to know as the Ultimates? The double-page cover to its first issue accords this very different group of charter members all due grandeur--but have they a mission statement beyond their patriotic duty, or are they essentially soldiers on call?

Monday, January 9, 2023

Wrath of the Proletarian!


OR: "Whole Lotta SFLANNGin' Goin' On"

Previously, we'd been taking a look at a mid-1979 issue of Uncanny X-Men which catches up with the team following their return to the states from Canada and finding their Westchester base virtually mothballed, with no sign of Professor X. Yet we also learned that Peter Rasputin, the steel-formed Colossus, was experiencing doubts about his capabilities as an X-Man--even as an assassin by the name of Arcade is hired by "Black Tom" Cassidy and the Juggernaut to destroy the mutant team.

Arcade is also known by readers of Marvel Team-Up from a prior story in early '78 where the Maggia had contracted him to kill Brian Braddock (the civilian identity of Captain Britain)--and it's that story we briefly return to first, as Spider-Man joins forces with the Captain only to fall prey to a method of capture which is as clever in its simplicity (and originality) as it is perplexing in its ability to succeed against super-powered individuals who appear helpless to either evade or stop it.

Thankfully, both Spider-Man and Captain Britain prevailed in their struggle against Arcade--but when Arcade begins to corral the X-Men for their own visit to "Murderworld," artist John Byrne, perhaps with the old adage of if it ain't broke, don't fix it in mind, recycles Arcade's previous method of capture which turns out to work just as reliably with super-powered X-Men.

(You can bet Cyclops didn't waste time adding this rig to the team's Danger Room.)

Being a careful man when it comes to a job, Arcade naturally doesn't put all of his eggs in the same basket when it comes to capturing his new targets--and so he personally surprises and snags the rest of the X-Men from their mansion, and off they go to his Murderworld complex, where his planned treatment of Colossus is soon underway.

For the sake of the story, a brainwashing treatment that would have normally taken a minimum of days to succeed is expedited--and faster than you can say "Dmri, tovarishch!", the Proletarian is unleashed on his fellow X-Men, who have become separated in the deadly chambers of Murderworld.

As for the instigator of this madness, he couldn't be happier at the X-Men's predicament. After all, for Arcade, fun is the name of the game when it comes to murder.

(I wouldn't go so far as to say the Proletarian is "power-mad," Mr. Cover Captioner.)

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Bonus Features: Spider-Annuals, 1964-1999


Aside from rogues' galleries, pin-ups, and, in all too many cases, reprinted material, a staple of Marvel "king-size" annuals has been the informative bonus features that came in the form of exploring a character's abilities, being provided with a tour of their headquarters, a rundown of their supporting cast, or a supplemental tale consisting of only three or four pages, on the occasion that the main story didn't fulfill the expected page count. You'll find many of these bonus features given their due throughout the PPC over the years--but for a little variety on the subject, we'll begin digging through and dusting off some of the more under the radar material where a little extra creative effort went into these features.

In this inaugural post on the subject, we turn our focus to one of Marvel's inaugural characters, the amazing Spider-Man--and as long as we're going that far back, it seems fitting to include a few of the bonus features from the character's first annual from 1964, itself packed with additional material to no doubt titillate Spidey's growing fan base and including a number of pages which spotlight the work of the book's artist, Steve Ditko.

Monday, January 2, 2023



As a transition issue that sees the X-Men return from Canada following their retrieval of Wolverine from Alpha Flight, and prior to their first engagement with the assassin-for-hire known as Arcade, "cry for the children!" from mid-1979 lets us see some down time for a few of the team members even as they collectively face the mystery of the absence of Professor X and finding their Westchester school for all intents and purposes mothballed. Scripter Chris Claremont continues to guide these diverse characters on a steady course toward becoming a solid fighting team while also establishing deeper ties getting to know one another; but you'll also find impressive work here by Terry Austin, who once again inks but also acts as finisher to the pencil breakdowns of John Byrne (their roles being the same in the first half of the Arcade arc), though frankly it's difficult to tell if Byrne is simply a strong layout artist or Austin is more than than comfortable with giving Byrne's style room to breathe.

As for the opening pages of the story, "down time" for the X-Men doesn't necessarily mean their "Danger Room" training facility is going to be collecting dust, if Cyclops has anything to say about it; in fact, you might say the recent performance of Colossus in the field has become Scott Summers' *ahem* pressing concern.