Thursday, June 29, 2023

Mongu, Redux!


It's November of 1962, and the first Incredible Hulk series is just two issues away from cancellation in March of 1963.* Following the format of the previous issue, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby have the story pulling double duty--the first half making a concerted effort to engage the reader more with the Hulk, Bruce Banner, and the book's limited cast of characters (Rick Jones, Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross, and his daughter and Banner's love interest, Betty), leaving the second half to introduce the book's threat to the title character.

*Though the beleaguered Hulk would receive an encore, as the date coincides with his first appearance in the pages of Fantastic Four.

By all indications, we're in for another alien menace, the book's second thus far; yet we'll also be witness to yet another change in the makeup of the Hulk, who at this point still remains under the mental control of Rick following an attempt to exile the Hulk in space and his subsequent exposure to unexpected radiation. And as if Bruce Banner and Rick Jones didn't have enough to worry about, there is one person under everyone's radar who is beginning to put the pieces together on the mystery of the Hulk, someone who unfortunately has the ear of the general who commands the New Mexico military base which has turned its resources toward finding and destroying him.

And now, the arrival of a figure who descends from the stars, whose challenge will decide the fate of the entire planet!

Whew, that's a relief--just about any industrial complex on Earth can "weld" a two-ton ax for this alien in no time! We're saved!

I don't suppose Mongu is the type to be amused at being tripped up by having misspoken.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Two! Two! Two Annuals In One!


The year 1979 saw the character of Spider-Man at the height of his popularity, featured in three titles (Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (while also having racked up his share of the Giant-Size books) with, unbelievably, even more on the way. It was fair to wonder at times what depths were being dredged to come up with all the new story material that required taking into account Peter's double life and revolving cast of characters (anyone here remember Marcy Kane?), to say nothing of the artists tapped to churn out story after story of the web-slinger's adventures along with the travails of the stretched-to-the-limit Peter Parker, who somehow, somehow, managed to combine his activities as Spider-Man with his college, Daily Bugle, and family responsibilities while squeezing in something of a social and/or love life and hopefully some sleep, all in a 24-hour period. The coordination between the writing and art staff must have been nothing short of a trapeze act.

The one thing that Peter didn't have to worry about, of course, was a shortage of villains--with one of his deadliest pulling double duty in that year's Amazing/Spectacular annuals which shared the same plot, thanks to writers Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo teaming with artists John Byrne, Terry Austin, Rich Buckler and Jim Mooney. To help keep track of the events occurring in both and figure out where things are headed, the PPC ties these two annuals together in one post, as Spider-Man attempts to head off a scheme which could see Dr. Octopus launch his greatest and most ambitious plan--one that might well lead to a nuclear holocaust!

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The New, Improved A.I.M.


By 1990, writer Mark Gruenwald appeared to have coordinated the Captain America and Quasar books to bring more of a focus to Advanced Idea Mechanics (aka A.I.M.), the criminal organization which advanced its agenda of world conquest in the pages of both Tales Of Suspense and Strange Tales and, of course, is known for its creation of the Cosmic Cube as well as the Adaptoid. But times change--and with the elimination of the ambitious M.O.D.O.K. (with the assistance of the Serpent Society), AIM's new Chairman of the Board, Alessandro Brannex, assembles prospective clients in order to make a shocking announcement that fundamentally changes AIM's mission statement and reorders its priorities to reflect a more practical use of its research and development scientists and resources--an announcement which no doubt stuns the collective criminal factions present, as well as we longtime readers.

In addition, AIM has improved on MODOK with the creation of another "mental organism" unit (hopefully taking greater care to ensure its loyalty and subservience to its makers):

As for AIM's pitch, all assembled appear to be receptive but holding off on placing any orders for the time being (though having no objections to sticking around for the free refreshments). But two in attendance are ready to approach Brannex with a lucrative offer involving a certain pair of quantum bands, an offer too good for Brannex and his Board to pass up.

AIM being AIM, our two clients have been identified as aliens, whom we recognize from the pages of Captain Marvel and The Avengers as Kree bio-scientist Dr. Minerva and the Kree soldier Captain Atlas. Considering their interest in Quasar's wrist bands, no doubt they won't complain if AIM sells them the real thing rather than duplicates; but as for how AIM will go about obtaining them, Brannex has already indicated that MODAM will get its "her" chance to shine.

And she seems pretty eager to take a crack at it, doesn't she?

Monday, June 19, 2023

Thunder Across The Worlds!


Thanks to the nature of the incredible Hulk, whose hair-trigger rage often causes him to present a danger to populated areas, the handful of battles that have arisen between himself and the mighty Thor over the decades haven't necessarily involved a great deal of forethought on the part of the comics writer (though it's appreciated when it's present). The Hulk appears, destroying property and endangering lives... Thor gets wind of it and makes a beeline for the scene... and voilà. A textbook example would take place in 2001, courtesy of artist/writer Erik Larsen, whose first penciling work for Marvel in 1987 produced such a battle with writer Stan Lee and, fourteen years later to the month, exchanges his pencils for a typewriter to join with artist Jorge Lucas to give us that year's Incredible Hulk Annual, where two of Marvel's most powerful characters once again clash in destructive fury.

Cover art by J.H. Williams III

As for that lack of forethought, we see that as early as page one when the provocation for the Hulk's rampage turns out to be Fialan, an assassin we met decades earlier when he was sent from the micro-world of the Hulk's betrothed, Jarella, only to subsequently meet a fiery death at the Hulk's hands. (Or so we thought at the time.)

Granted, Fialan's incineration in the inferno he was hurled into--complete with agonizing scream--happened off-panel, but come on. Regardless, it's allowed Larsen to slip in the presumption that Fialan has "inexplicably returned" and leave it at that, though he further confuses the facts by claiming that the assassin has returned to "complete his mission" of slaying Jarella and the Hulk. Jarella, however, met her death during the Crypto-Man's assault twenty-five years prior to this point (not even Marvel time can evaporate years to that extent and imply Fialan has resurfaced only recently)--while the Hulk's death was never part of Fialan's mission, but simply taken on when the Hulk appeared in Jarella's defense.

In other words, Fialan, dead or inexplicably alive, has no purpose here. Nevertheless, he cheats death a second time when the Mandroids show up to settle the Hulk's hash (or try to).

As for Thor, he's crosstown rounding up an armed gang of criminals when he gets word of the Hulk's activities, and his duty is clear.

Which is nearly a panel-by-panel replay of the scene that Larsen laid out previously in the 1987 story:

But you didn't start reading this review to hear me quibble about recycling material, did you? In any event, Larsen's story here has one important difference, in that this time Thor doesn't regard this as a perfect opportunity to satisfy his battle lust and a triumph to savor, but a responsibility to end the Hulk's menace for good. And when the two finally square off, he puts that resolve into words for his opponent--for all the good it does him, against a foe who has also had it up to here... in this case, with being a constant target for those who want to destroy him.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Fantasy Scenarios of Marvel's Epic Illustrated


Throwing its hat into the ring with publications such as Heavy Metal, Weirdo, Raw, and heaven knows how many horror magazines, 1980 was the year that saw the launch of Epic Illustrated, Marvel's comics anthology magazine which brought a variety of talent to its pages from such notables as Harlan Ellison, Frank Frazetta, Robert E. Howard, Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, and Pepe Moreno and Rick Veitch (both new artists at the time)--along with familiar names from Marvel such as Bill Sienkiewicz, Marv Wolfman, Marie Severin, John Byrne, Doug Moench, Denny O'Neil, Bill Mantlo, Frank Brunner, Archie Goodwin (Epic's Editor), Barry Windsor-Smith, Rich Buckler, Stan Lee, Craig Russell, Ralph Macchio, Terry Austin, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, et al. Epic, not bound by the Comics Code and opening its door to more explicit content than what's normally found on the comics page, offered an outlet which no doubt appealed to its contributors, who retained ownership of their material and were paid royalties.

In addition, many stories were continued from issue to issue, effectively allowing their creator(s) a gap of 2-3 months to turn in their pages. Yet that leeway would work against one such tale, "The Last Galactus Story"--consisting of nine installments, but its last unfortunately coinciding with the magazine's cancellation in 1986 before it could see print. Epic's twenty-sixth issue bears a splendid cover by Bill Sienkiewicz (pictured above) which represents that story, while inside we find the story's first installment by John Byrne and Terry Austin.

Byrne would later provide on his blog a synopsis of the intended tenth installment, which visually would have been something to see:

"At the virtual End of the Universe, Galactus is confronted by a Watcher. This Watcher turns out to be the same one who witnessed the "birth" of Galactus in our universe. The Watcher (not Uatu) was eventually driven mad by the accumulated guilt he feels for the acts of Galactus. He has been trying to move galaxies to somewhere Galactus cannot find them, but has been destroying them in the process. Galactus and the Watcher battle -- a huge cosmic confrontation that stretches over centuries, as the universe falls into near total entropy. Finally, to defeat the Watcher, Galactus sucks all the remaining energy out of the Universe. Nothing is left but Galactus and his loyal herald, Nova. Realizing at last what his purpose is, Galactus cracks the seal on his suit, starts to remove his helmet, and in that instant all the energy he has absorbed explodes out of him. He becomes the "big bang" of the next universe, and when the smoke clears, we see Nova has been reborn, as that universe's Galactus."

Stan Lee (with artist John Buscema) also contributed his own Galactus story, this one involving the Silver Surfer and taking place at the end of the universe... but what lies beyond?

And it wasn't at all surprising to find writer/artist Jim Starlin contributing material to its pages.

In its first year, Epic was published seasonally and thereafter shifted to bimonthly publication from that point on. Its selling price then at $2.50 an issue, combined with with its expensive printing process and reportedly poor sales, led to the magazine closing shop after 34 issues in 1986. But what an impressive step forward for the genre, and a successful experiment that's seen its stories appear in other collected works through the years. In addition, Epic Illustrated led to the Marvel imprint Epic Comics launching in 1982, which operated under the same freedoms and benefits for its contributors and consisted of titles such as Jim Starlin's Dreadstar, Frank Miller's Electra Lives Again, Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown by the Simonsons with artists Kent Williams and Jon Muth, and Swords of the Swashbucklers by Bill Mantlo and Jackson Guice.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Parting Of The Ways


Marvel 100th Anniversary Issues


Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #100

By 1985, it's safe to say the thrill was arguably gone from celebrating the achievement of a title's 100th issue. The major books, most of which dated back to the Silver Age, threw their confetti in that respect in the '70s, with the last issue I recall still in the general neighborhood being The Defenders #100 from October of 1981, followed by Marvel Two-In-One #100 in June, 1983. Thanks to the X-Men spin-offs, however, two other X-titles were able to have their own landmark 100th issues as late as the turn of the century--X-Factor #100 in 1994, and the anniversary issue of the second X-Men series in May of 2000. Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man book, later renamed Peter Parker Spider-Man, fell just short of the mark of receiving its own recognition, ending with issue #98 at the end of '98 (quite a coincidence there). That would leave Web of Spider-Man (which I dropped pretty early in the series), which published its 100th issue in 1993, as well as Ultimate Spider-Man #100 in 2006.

The Spectacular Spider-Man issue, clocking in at thirty-nine pages, bills itself on its splash page as "a momentous milestone in the life and times of the spectacular Spider-Man," which would indicate a significant change or development occurring in Spider-Man's life. Whether or not that actually takes place is debatable (and more on that shortly); but regardless, there's little in the story to indicate we're holding a book considered as an achievement in the series, while its cover design by artist/writer Al Milgrom lauds the anniversary aspect yet clutters and slants the magic number so as to all but obscure it. As for its guest-stars, there are two who are singled out on the cover as being prominently featured in the story--but depending on how you feel about the Black Cat and her facile preoccupation with Spider-Man, you may find yourself grateful for, of all people, the Kingpin of Crime.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The John Byrne Might-Have-Been Incredible Hulk, 1985-86


Aside from his other work with the character, artist/writer John Byrne would make two stabs within a thirteen-year timeframe at putting his imprint on titles featuring the incredible Hulk--the first taking place during the mid-1980s in the Vol. 2 series of the same name, and the second during the launch of, simply, Hulk in 1999. If you have difficulty recalling either, you could probably chalk it up to having "blinked and missed" them, as the saying goes when describing something of such brief duration as to be easily overlooked, given that those instances only amounted to six or seven issues, respectively.

Each effort showed promise, with Byrne handling story and art in the first, and teaming with artist Ron Garney in the second--but reportedly, there were intra-office factors in play which prompted Byrne's early exit in both cases. In a segment from a 2000 interview with Byrne conducted by Comic Book Resources' Michael David Thomas, the details regarding each are as sparse as the issues in question:

MDT: One of the shortest runs on a character that you plotted and sub-plotted for in those five [sic] issues [#s 314-319]. What happened?

JB: "Betrayal" would be an excessively strong word for what happened. I took on the Hulk after a discussion with [Editor-In-Chief Jim] Shooter, in which I mentioned some of the things I would like to do with that character, given the chance. He told me to do whatever was necessary to get on the book, he liked my ideas so much. I did, and once installed he immediately changed his mind - "You can't do this!" Six issues was as much as I could take.

MDT: You returned to write the new series [in 1999] and then within the space of 7 issues were cut from the book. Can you talk a little about what happened in that situation?

JB: No.

Having previously touched on the Byrne/Garney collaboration in 1999 as part of a broader look at Byrne's other late-'90s projects, we'll focus here on his earlier Incredible Hulk contribution for the benefit of those of you who may have missed those issues (as well as those who care to revisit them) and feature highlights that showed the direction Byrne was heading in as he assembled and implemented the building blocks of the plots as well as the various characters, fresh or familiar, who would meet and deal with both Bruce Banner and his raging other self.  That storyline stems from a chemical procedure performed by Leonard "Doc" Samson which succeeded in separating Banner from the Hulk (following Samson's capture of the brute), which introduced the possibility of the subsequent blank slate of the Hulk's mind being conditioned for the purpose of the Hulk becoming a benefit to humanity--a hope dashed by S.H.I.E.L.D., which swooped in to take custody of the Hulk as a prelude to destroying him, which prompts Samson, in turn, to raid his transport detail and free him. In the process, however, Samson discovers that the Hulk is now a creature of undiluted, mindless rage, and, holding himself responsible for the destruction and devastation which the Hulk goes on to visit on those innocents in his path, decides to hunt down and recapture him.

Following Byrne's exit, we're provided with a brief flashback of how things spun out of control from there:

A series of developments we'll now examine more closely--along with what Bruce Banner (remember him?) is doing with his new lease on life.

(With a tip of the hat to artist Joe Jusko for his homage framing art above.)
You hit it out of the park, guy!

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Fall Of Magneto!


Within the top twenty-five issues which constitute The 100 Greatest Marvels of All Time*, we find coming in at No. 16 the 1993 X-Men #25--written by Fabian Nicieza, with art by Andy Kubert and Matt Ryan, its story bringing to a head the tense situation involving Magneto and his group of acolytes in his orbital base of Avalon.

*A twist on the 1969-81 Marvel's Greatest Comics concept, but instead took its title more seriously and solicited votes for the top 100 comics published by the company and, in a ten-issue series of trade paperbacks from 2001-02, counted down and reprinted the twenty-five issues which topped the list. (SPOILER ALERT: The No. 1 fan favorite turned out to be Amazing Fantasy #15, featuring the debut of Spider-Man.)

Underlying the conflict which follows between the X-Men and Magneto, as you may have already guessed, are the differences that Charles Xavier and his old friend/foe continue to have in their respective approaches to how best to safeguard the mutants of the world vis-à-vis their relations with homo sapiens--a very old argument between them that has once more led to Magneto taking a stand of force in his efforts to prevent mutants from being oppressed and/or killed by those humans who harbor hatred for them, rejecting Xavier's dream of integrating the two races in peace which Magneto views as futile. But in the story's appearance in the 100 Greatest series, Bob Greenberger (Director-Publishing Operations), in his foreword, reveals at least one of the two more prevalent scenes (while hinting at the second) which were likely responsible for this issue of X-Men coming to mind for the over 50,000 voters who filled out their ballots. (Which constitutes SPOILER ALERT #2--but perhaps a moot point, given that the issue is nearly thirty years old.)

But let's take things one step at a time, as we're first witness to what serves as the last straw for Magneto--what he considers an act of provocation when the powers of the world decide to implement the so-called Magneto Protocols, which leads the Master of Magnetism to respond with a reprisal that technologically cripples the entire planet. Consequently, the X-Men, who have the benefit of their equipment from the Shi'ar to help them recover, assess the stakes involved if they do not act decisively against him.

(NOTE: The splash page's dedication which mentions a thirty-year future for the X-Men, and the PPC's review today, thirty years after the issue's publication, is purely coincidental--honest!)

Fortunately, before throwing the world into darkness and chaos, Magneto managed to light a fire under Kubert and Ryan to provide an impressive wrap-around cover for this issue--which throws in (no pun intended) a Gambit hologram which regrettably can't be discerned in a two-dimensional representation. I'm not the greatest fan of such gimmicks, but it did look pretty cool when tilted at the correct angle.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Brutal Betrayal of Debra Whitman!


We've recently taken a look at the strange saga of Debra Whitman, a young woman from the midwest who ended up in New York and met Peter Parker while he was attending Empire State University. In time, she became attracted to him, though the relationship failed to really go anywhere despite her hopes to the contrary, even as things were further complicated by Debra's suspicions that Peter was also Spider-Man. Eventually, the situation led to Debra developing a fragile state of mind that was only stabilized by Peter admitting the truth while in costume, a gesture which instead served to shock Debra out of her supposed delirium and finally take stock of her life after thanking Peter for going to such lengths just to help her.

Cut to twenty-four years later (our time) to early 2007, where Debra is now living with her mother (with good reason, as we'll learn)--while in New York, we find Peter at the point in time where he has revealed his identity as Spider-Man to the world in compliance with the Super-Human Registration Act. What effect would that revelation have had on Debra, you may well ask--a woman whose mental health was compromised by Peter's lies on the subject in addition to allowing her to leave town under the mistaken impression that his revealing himself in costume was only a ruse to shock her back to "reality"?

For Debra, the effect might be a toss-up between feeling either betrayed, or played.

And unfortunately for Peter, it turns out there's someone else who wants to jump on the revenge wagon.