Monday, February 6, 2023

The Erstwhile Marvel Man


During the early 1990s, there were a number of stories in The Avengers which featured the man we eventually came to know as Quasar, who as Wendell Vaughn actually dates back to the late '70s but who had gone through a refit or two by the time he joined the Assemblers. I was admittedly on auto-pilot when reading the book during that period--its 300th issue having not quite capped a sudden spiral downward in quality and direction following the departure of writer Roger Stern, while its story, despite its forced appearance of affirmation, conveyed an impression of the book and its team as being rudderless. And so I could be forgiven for accepting Quasar in the Avengers lineup at face value, as new Avengers stories from that point on were rifled through fairly quickly, rather than being read with interest and anticipation on my part. (Remember the times when we were eager to sit down with a new comics story?)

That being the case, it's not surprising that I've found myself going over in my mind Quasar's beginnings as the informal successor (if that's even the right word) to Marvel Boy, and wondering: When exactly did this man join the Avengers? Yet as we'll see, "joined" may be a misnomer in the sense of how we've come to regard new members being inducted into and being presented as part of the Avengers lineup.

For those of you not familiar with the character to any great degree, it might prove helpful to retrace his steps from the point of his appearance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. initiate, where, hoping to become an agent in the field, he's instead evaluated as suited to other duties for the agency.

Meanwhile, his estranged father, Gilbert Vaughn, a specialist in R&D working with Stark International, has been assigned following a meeting with Nick Fury to investigate potential defensive uses for the quantum bands that survived the death of the Crusader. But the analysis leads to the death of SHIELD's top equipment tester, even as it yields a clue as to a crucial factor in the bands' usage.

As we can see, technician Zane, in actuality an A.I.M. infiltrator, is in contact with his superiors to arrange a raid on the facility. During the attack, Vaughn discovers that his son Wendell is part of his SHIELD security detail--and by necessity, the younger Vaughn attempts to seize the advantage against the overwhelming A.I.M. forces by recovering and donning the wrist bands. As the battle wears on, Vaughn begins to put the pieces together in regard to how the bands' previous wearers met their end.

(Scenes taken from Quasar #1, October 1989)

From here, we need to backtrack over a decade to 1978 to Wendell Vaughn's appearance in the pages of Captain America, where his profile in SHIELD has changed noticeably and he's introduced as part of SHIELD's new super-agents initiative (along with Blue Streak, the Vamp, and the Texas Twister), in response to the agency being infiltrated by a nationwide criminal organization known as the Corporation. At this early stage of his new career, Vaughn's appearance and powers have been closely patterned after the deceased Marvel Boy (though I'd imagine a grown SHIELD agent would have winced at being assigned the same name).

Cap turns down an offer to train the agents, recommending the Falcon in his place; but Cap would meet the group again when searching for the missing Falcon and he has cause to believe one of these agents is actually taking their orders from the Corporation.

As we've seen, the Blue Streak shows his true colors well enough, with the Vamp beating him to within an inch of his life before Cap intervenes. Once the dust has settled, Cap recruits Marvel Man (the name having been revised off-panel before an appearance in a separate Defenders story--we'll have to assume he was on leave) to track down Curtiss Jackson, the Corporation's west coast head, who holds Bruce Banner and Jim Wilson captive. Joining Jackson is the organization's east coast head, Kligger (a U.S. senator) along with Moonstone--but the Vamp is also present, whose overtures toward Kligger confirm Cap's suspicions about her.

With his former group now being defunct, the crossover story (with Incredible Hulk) gives us a chance to see Vaughn's initiative on his own, with Cap's endorsement serving to pave the way for the character's segue to the Hulk segment. But before that takes place, it's the Hulk who literally wrecks the momentum of Cap and Vaughn against their foes, before regrouping to take on Jackson (who by now has killed Kligger to keep him from being taken into custody by SHIELD).

As the story continues in Hulk, Jackson is pulling every trick in the book to escape the Hulk's pursuit, which Marvel Man takes a hand in during SHIELD's mop-up operation. But the Hulk, laser-focused on the man trying to escape him, isn't about to be deterred by Vaughn's arrival on the scene.

It's chafing to see a weasel like Jackson succeed in avoiding the Hulk's retribution (at least for the time being), but his gunsels do their job (to their misfortune) long enough for him to get out of harm's way. But Marvel Man, still a stickler for SHIELD rules and regs, is quick to become another thorn in the Hulk's side, and is rebuffed for his trouble. In the process, however, one of the civilians he meets inadvertently sets him straight on the fact that his code name still needs work.

Not long afterward, Vaughn begins serving as head of security for the federal energy research facility Project Pegasus in upstate New York--debuting his new name of "Quasar" but retaining the appearance of Marvel Boy. Consequently, when he introduces himself to the visiting Ben Grimm, he receives a violent reception as the Thing lashes out at the person he mistakenly believes to be the Crusader.

(Note to Mr. Vaughn: Aside from the odd decision to continue appearing as the successor to Marvel Boy, I have yet to see anyone take an attack stance as you have when introducing himself. Stand upright at a respective distance rather than leering over someone looking like you're about to pounce, and smile when reaching out your hand to them.)

As is evident in this story nearly ten years before the fact, Vaughn has given a very pared down (and differential) account of how he acquired the quantum bands. Fortunately, the Thing has a time-tested way of smoothing things over with Quasar by roping in a few of the staff to sit in on one of his poker games.

We know by now that Vaughn takes his responsibilities seriously--but in the performance of his duties at this facility, we come to understand just how much his posting at Pegasus means to him. (In a way, perhaps too much so.)

And so following a later conflict at the facility where he's taken by surprise by his own security detail and falls under the sway of the Serpent Crown, he takes personal responsibility for what he sees as failure on his part, and tenders his resignation. It's a decision that would eventually lead to a change in not only his outlook, but also his role as Quasar.

(Gee, that isn't our friend Mr. Zane in the background, is it?)

While embroiled in a life-or-death battle during his investigative mission to Uranus, Quasar is drawn into a meeting with Eon, the entity who had a similar confrontation with Captain Marvel and who now seeks a successor to Mar-vell's former role. In Vaughn's case, Eon doesn't invoke the same necessity for change as he did in Mar-vell; rather, he appears satisfied with qualities that Quasar already possesses, and Quasar, though having certain doubts about the depth of the responsibilities he's taking on, nevertheless agrees to assist Eon in the immediate emergency.

What Quasar has gained aside from cosmetic adjustments is the total mastery of the bands--knowledge that he takes back to Earth, where he soon responds to an attack by Super-Nova, the sole survivor of the planet Xandar who is demanding that his world's destroyer, Nebula, be turned over to him. Which, at last, brings the Avengers into the picture.

When the conflict is resolved (thanks to Reed Richards, who paid no heed to Captain America's stern by-the-numbers approach and cooked up a solution himself--maybe the only good thing about this story), it would be easy to assume that Quasar's performance in the crisis leads to an offer from Cap for membership in the Avengers. Instead, Cap's summons to assemble simply formalizes what everyone already knows: Once an Avenger, always an Avenger.

Which, gosh gee, everyone assembled treats as if it were the best, most original, most rousing idea ever. As for Quasar, who wasn't previously a member and to which this declaration doesn't apply, he's apparently "grandfathered" into membership just by virtue of the fact that he sticks around afterward.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I became more interested in writer Mark Gruenwald's work in Quasar's solo book as a whole rather than anything the title character might have brought to the table, since Gruenwald's stock-in-trade has been to take an interest in former characters that had disappeared from active roles. As far as filling the shoes of former universal protectors, my impression of Quasar has been that, while indeed resourceful, he wasn't particularly inspiring as a character headlining a series. (I'm hoping that assessment doesn't get me in Dutch with Eon.)

The untold fate of the Uranus colony!


Big Murr said...

Many of the images you offer are familiar, but not so they stuck in my memory banks. Poor Quasar never really clicked for me back then.

When he did actually click was in the Guardians of the Galaxy (2010-ish) and other "cosmic Marvel" stories of that time. He was sort of "lost in the crowd", but nevertheless acquitted himself with distinction. He ended up being recruited for "the Annihilators" (a follow-up group commemorating the apparent heroic sacrifice of the Guardians). Quasar stood shoulder-to-shoulder with outer space heavyweights like Gladiator, Silver Surfer, and Beta Ray Bill.

BUT, the couple of panels Quasar moment I'll never forget didn't even have Quasar. The Agents of Atlas were in the midst of being created-reborn. Ken "Gorilla Man" Hale asks Bob "Original Marvel Boy" Grayson: "Hey Bob! What say we go roll that Quasar kid and get your wristbands back?" Grayson demurred, his rebirth and new power set being the most drastic. "I'm not a big advocate of solar energy these days".

I remember that moment mostly because Gorilla Man is one of my top favourites.

Comicsfan said...

Too bad about Grayson's disinterest in his old quantum bands, Murray--a meeting between Vaughn and Grayson has that classic "You stole my power, and I want it back!" Battle Royal vibe all over it!

Anonymous said...

Quasar certainly wasn't a comic anyone was demanding except its creator Mark Gruenwald. While not his "creator" (that was Roy Thomas, although really, when all you do is clone an existing character like Marvel Boy - which he earlier killed off - how much creativity is involved?) Gruenwald was the one who took him and built him up in his Marvel Two-in-One run.

According to John Byrne who took over as writer of Avengers shortly after this Super Nova story, Gruenwald (who was Marvels #2 man at the time) forced the Avengers to include Quasar so he'd get higher sales on the solo title.

Quasar was never a great title, but it did have certain charms. There were parts of it that did work. But I believe Gruenwald made several fundamental mistakes that more or less doomed the title. He was supposed to be a cosmic hero, but like too many "cosmic heroes" he spent way too much time on Earth fighting pedestrian menaces.

He weirdly had a secret identity despite not wearing a mask, already had lots of people who knew his real name from his time at SHIELD and Project: Pegasus, and had a power set that really reduced the chances of someone using that knowledge against him. I get that secret identities are a staple of super heroes, but Marvel already had characters who did not have secret identities (like the FF). Instead of him building some nonsensical security consulting company, why not just build a supporting cast with him working with space agencies and astronomical scientists during the time he was on Earth?

Gruenwald also did a very poor job of building a rogues gallery. Gruenwald would introduce some neat villains, but they weren't used again or not used again until dozens of issues later. Compare to Kirby and Ditko who knew to repeat the cool villains on a regular basis (though not to overuse).

By the time Gruenwald got to the big story he was building up to, Jim Starlin had returned and in far less time stole all that thunder away with the first Infinity Gems story.

Quasar had all the strengths and weaknesses of Gruenwald's other titles. I always found Gruenwald to be an inconsistent writer. The quality of his work would range everywhere from mediocre to really good. He was someone who really needed a strong editor to reject his bad ideas, encourage the goods ones, and tamp down his excesses. Unfortunately Gruenwald was the other editors' boss, so he was never subjected to discipline that could have elevated his work.


Anonymous said...

Quasar lacked distinctiveness. His blond mop/headband evokes early Hawkeye. Is he slightly Tyrannus-like, too? The metal cummerbund-thing is shared with the Vision, Warlock, Drax, etc. Wrist band powers - well, that's like Captain Marvel's Nega bands. What does that flame symbol on his chest mean? Who knows? It changed later on, too. What exactly are his powers? The Quantum bands do virtually anything. Did Stark Industries create them? No back-story to draw on, then (at least, to start with)? The problems multiply!

Nevertheless, Quasar stories appealed to me, at the time. But maybe that's because, with Sal & Perez art, some were 'very Bronze Age', despite Quasar's indistinct nature.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to include in my list of his "indistinctness" (is that even a word?), as a kid, remembering if he was Marvel Man or Quasar.


Comicsfan said...

Chris, I'll be content to take your word on what did and didn't work in the Quasar title, as I've been fairly selective in taking a look at its stories--held back only by Quasar himself, who in his fictional life is probably a great guy to know and have your back, but, Avenger or not, wasn't a hero who was able to hold my interest. And if I'm being honest, Mark Gruenwald's handling of Captain America more than once had me dealing with similar feelings.

Phillip, Quasar's powers couldn't help but have me thinking this was Marvel's answer to Green Lantern (though without the need to charge his quantum bands or invoke some sort of oath when going into action)--something that wasn't a factor with the original Marvel Boy, whose band-powers were merely light-based. And on that subject, we've learned here that the bands didn't originate with Stark or SHIELD--but as to their true origin and purpose, we'll see both Vaughns grapple with that question in this post's follow-up.

Anonymous said...

Re: that fight between Captain America and the SHIELD superagents - is he hitting a woman there, or pushing her head into a control panel? Either way, its not a good look for Cap!
(Yes, I'm aware the Vamp turns out to be not as she appears - but he doesn't know that!)

Anyway, thanks for keeping me informed about Marvel Boy/Marvel Man/Quasar and saving me the bother of reading any comics about him, Comicsfan.
I look forward to more about Uranus tomorrow.


Comicsfan said...

Sean, since the Vamp's belt allows her to absorb the strength and skill of her opponent, Cap was mainly dodging her series of attack strikes until he could get into a position to disable her. In that particular panel, he may have been simply trying to avoid having her come into contact with him, while also making sure that she was out of action for awhile. (At least that's my guess.)