Friday, 22 May 2015

Essential Avengers volume 6

Essential Avengers volume 6 contains issues #120 to #140 and Giant-Size Avengers #1 to #4, plus Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four #150. This includes the full contents of Avengers #136, which reprints Amazing Adventures #12. Almost all the regular and Giant-Size Avengers issues are written by Steve Englehart, apart from one regular and one Giant-Size that are scripted by Roy Thomas who fully writes another Giant-Size. The art sees runs by Bob Brown, Sal Buscema and George Tuska with other issues by John Buscema. The Giant-Sizes are drawn by Rich Buckler, Dave Cockrum and Don Heck. The reprinted Amazing Adventures issue is written by Englehart and drawn by Tom Sutton. The Captain Marvel issue is plotted and pencilled by Jim Starlin and scripted by Englehart whilst the Fantastic Four issue is written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Buckler. And with so many creators there's a separate post for the labels.

This volume has one of the best starting and end points, neatly capturing one of the most significant periods in not just Avengers history but in the wider Marvel universe. Here we see the links between titles getting ever stronger as we get not only crossovers with Captain Marvel and Fantastic Four but also see brief overspills from titles as diverse as Captain America and the Falcon and Doctor Strange. Furthermore there's a much greater use of Marvel history than ever before, with a willingness to tie together disperse plot points and explain everything from the abandoned city in the Blue Area of the Moon through to the presence of Captain America in the post war All-Winners Squad.

On some occasions this can get a little too much though, to the point that characters wind up being tied together perhaps more than is necessary. A case in point comes in Giant-Size Avengers #1, which is the nearest thing to an annual by a different writer in this volume. Here we get a tale that reveals the parents of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to have been Miss America and the Whizzer from the Golden Age comics, with the place of birth none other than the High Evolutionary's Mount Wundagore with one of his evolutions, Bova the cow, serving as the midwife. Was it really necessary to establish this parentage? Neither of the parents had been hitherto seen in the Silver Age outside of reprints (helpfully the footnotes referencing past adventures include the reprints as well as the original issues), let alone had any prior history with the two and there's no particular reason why the most prominent speedsters have to be related to each other, especially as one is a mutant and the other got his powers from a mongoose. Nor does it really add much to the story itself which is mainly focused on the Whizzer's attempts to contain the threat of his other mutated child, Nuklo, along with one of the first attempts to sort out the immediate post war Captain America adventures by establishing yet another replacement after the original was missing in action.

And this isn't the only time one of the heroes is connected to the Golden Age. After many years of brief hints, we now get the revelation that the Vision is the original Human Torch rebuilt and with his memories and personality mostly erased. Does this make the Vision a reincarnation of the Torch or is he in some way a being like Frankenstein's Monster, literally constructed out of the dead body of another? It's one of those concepts that doesn't bear thinking about. Overall it seems from the hints that are referenced here that this had been the plan for several years if not since the beginning, not least because Roy Thomas is just still the editor, and scripting the revelation issue, and he had created the Vision and written most of the hints. And of course he's long been the biggest champion of reusing the Golden Age characters. Now it can be reasonably argued that the original Human Torch has been surplus to requirements ever since the introduction of the Fantastic Four's Human Torch. But this had already been dealt with in a Fantastic Four annual in which the original was briefly revived only to die for good. There is simply no need to tack on an unremembered past to a character who is only similar to the original Torch in that they are both androids. Once again it feels like retconning for the sake of it and it doesn't add much to the character.

Also adding little is the crossover with Captain Marvel - indeed such is the detached nature of the issue in which the Avengers take on Thanos's space army that it isn't even included in Essential Captain Marvel volume 2. The Captain Marvel issue included here is the climax to the whole saga but the Avengers aren't too prominent in it and the issue could quite easily have been left out. By contrast the crossover with  Fantastic Four is a much stronger combination, featuring the wedding of the one-time Fantastic Four member Crystal to the ex-Avenger Quicksilver, complete with an attack by Ultron and other chaos with the Inhumans. It also shows up Quicksilver as a complete hypocrite when he rejects his sister's attempts at reconciliation due to his hostility to her relationship with an android, yet he is about to marry an Inhuman. Truly bigotry is never consistent.

But the biggest draw of this volume is one of the best known Avengers epics of all time, the Celestial Madonna Saga. The build-up is slow but adds revelations as it goes, starting off with the latest encounter with the Zodiac cartel as it suffers an internal division. The real shock comes with the discovery that Libra is Mantis's father and her history is very different from what she previously knew. But it also sets off the Swordsman's own story arc as he charges off in a fit of rage to take vengeance on Mantis's wicked uncle for the death of her mother and the blinding of her father. Instead he winds up captured and revealing the location of the Priests of Parma who raised her, with the result the crimelord uncle slays them. This unleashes the monstrous Star Stalker and adds to the revelations as we learn of the Priests' connections to the alien Kree. There's an extended interlude involving both crossovers plus an encounter with Klaw and Solarr, with the Black Panther departing for his kingdom. Meanwhile the Scarlet Witch gets a power boost as Agatha Harkness starts to teach her magic to control her hex spheres, but in the process they encounter the demon Necrodamus.

Throughout all this there's a strong emphasis on character development as the Avengers explore themselves and their feelings for one another. Mantis is steadily turning away from the Swordsman and towards the Vision, to the Scarlet Witch's outrage. The Vision is slowly learning what his true feelings are. The Swordsman is feeling ever more inadequate, with his attempt to win back Mantis's heart ending in disaster and then he is deemed too insignificant to bother kidnapping. Captain America is also suffering a crisis of faith due to events over in his own series and the Watergate scandal; this leads him to drop aside from the Avengers for the time being. When Hawkeye returns to the team he finds it a very different affair from the one he left.

The main part of the storyline comes with the assault by Kang the Conqueror, seeking the legendary Celestial Madonna who will mate with "the most powerful man on Earth", with the intention of fulfilling that role and using the prophesised child to rule the heavens. The religious subtext is far from subtle but there's also plenty of strong adventure themes with the Avengers aided by the Egyptian pharaoh Rama Tut, now a future version of Kang who has grown weary of conquest and returned to his former identity and realm. Later in the storyline we get the addition of Immortus, now established as an even more future version of Kang and Rama Tut, making for an interesting conflict between a man's own self. The Avengers are put through a series of deadly challenges and not everyone makes it out alive, with the Swordsman dying to save Mantis whilst Iron Man and the Vision only survive thanks to being restored through the strange powers of Immortus.

The tale also takes advantage of the Giant-Size issues in order to fill out the story with three extra long chapters. When collected in a single volume the whole thing works, but readers of the original series may not have been able to find the Giant-Sizes so easily, whilst some of the digital releases of the series have omitted them, leaving great chunks out of the story. Still here they are available in the right place.

Another seeming interlude comes as the Swordsman's funeral is interrupted by the Titanic Three, a group commissioned by the Vietnamese government consisting of the Titanium Man, the Radioactive Man and the Crimson Dynamo as government enforcers. But the situation is complicated by the Slasher, a forgettable costumed jewel thief. Meanwhile Kang has used Immortus's equipment to create another group, the Legion of the Unliving, made up of deceased heroes and villains lifted from just before their apparent deaths. It's an oddball collection including the original Human Torch, Wonder Man and Baron Zemo, all of whom have connections to the Avengers even if they don't yet know it, but also Frankenstein's Monster, the martial artist Midnight (from Master of Kung Fu) and the Ghost aka the Flying Dutchman from the original Silver Surfer series. This motley crew prove a fierce challenge in the maze beneath Immortus's castle and once again it seems some Avengers won't get out alive.

The last parts of the saga feel a bit bitty as seemingly endless issues are devoted to the Vision observing the past history of the original Human Torch from creation through to Ultron's reconstruction of the body and personality whilst Mantis and the other Avengers are shown the history of the Kree's pacifist faction and the telepathic plant lifeform the Cotati. Adding to the drama is the revelation that Moondragon was an alternate candidate for the role of Celestial Madonna, to her annoyance. During all this the Scarlet Witch continues her training in magic but draws the attention of Dormammu. The finale comes as the Vision saves the Scarlet Witch and proposes to her, with a joint wedding alongside Mantis's. Mantis is finally made an Avenger just in time for she and her husband to be transformed to energy to carry out their purpose.

The last handful of issues are inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. Issue #136 is a reprint of the Beast's battle with Iron Man from the former's strip in Amazing Adventures but it does at least serve to introduce the character who, alongside Moondragon, becomes the latest applicants to join the team. A conflict with the Toad, impersonating the Stranger, proves a good baptism of fire followed by an attack by Whirlwind but returning members the Wasp and Yellowjacket each suffer in the course of these battles and some of the rest of the team has to desperately seek a cure. Meanwhile the team's search to fill out its vacancies proves less successful when contacting most old members, leading to Hawkeye going exploring in time to find the Black Knight but the storyline is not completed here.

Overall this is one of the best Essential Avengers volumes. It may at times show its age and it also suffers a little from an over-obsession with tying every aspect of the Golden Age into the modern Marvel universe, but it also shows some strong character work and thoughtful situations. The Celestial Madonna saga may drag a little at times but it nevertheless holds up well as one of the strongest epics yet seen in the series and it's easy to see why the story has been returned to on so many occasions. All in all this volume is a triumph.

Essential Avengers volume 6 - creator labels

Once more we have a volume with a lot of labels so here's a separate post for them.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Rocket Raccoon: Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant

Another look at a series that is not touched by the Essentials.

Rocket Raccoon: Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant is a Panini pocket book that reprints the four part Rocket Raccoon limited series from the 1980s plus the story introducing Groot from Tales to Astonish #13, Rocket's first appearance from Marvel Preview #7 and another Rocket tale from Incredible Hulk #271. Everything is written by Bill Mantlo bar the Tales to Astonish story, which is written by Larry Lieber. The limited series is drawn by Mike Mignola, the Tales to Astonish story by Jack Kirby, the Marvel Preview tale by Keith Giffen and the Incredible Hulk issue by Sal Buscema.

I first encountered the limited series as a back-up strip in back issus of Marvel UK's Transformers. There it suffered the fate of a lot of strips that when broken down into five or six pages an issue the flow can be jarring and I dismissed it as a piece of silliness. Reading it altogether brings a very different perspective. It's quite a good take on one of the traditional themes of science fiction - the long isolated planet that has evolved from its mission without really understanding it. Halfworld in the Keystone Quadrant is a strange planet, half a lush paradise occupied by anthropomorphic animals looking after the mentally ill, half a technological dystopia occupied by robots who manufacture toys the aforesaid mentally ill whilst also perpetually building a giant spaceship to breach the "Galacian Wall" barrier surrounding the system.

How this state of affairs came about is a mystery that is only slowly resolved when the inventor and scholar Pyko steals and deciphers the Halfworld Bible. In the meantime Ranger Rocket Raccoon gets caught in a power struggle between rival toy manufacturers Lord Dyvyne and Judson Jakes, the latter being the guardian of Rocket's girlfriend Lylla and proprietor of her firm, Mayhem Mekaniks. Dyvyne seeks to kidnap and marry Lylla as part of a hostile take-over, but his agent Blackjack O'Hare proves uncontrollable with ideas of his own. Rocket and his first mate Wal Russ, who is also Lylla's uncle, set out to rescue her aboard the ship Rakk 'N Ruin.

This is a tale that works well on two very different levels. On one, it's a simple adventure tale that uses animals instead of humans as its characters but otherwise presents a classic story of rescuing the girl and saving the world with Rocket himself as the hero. On another, it's a strong piece of social commentary, both about the intense rivalry and take-over business culture but also a plea for the plight of the mentally ill. Here they have been abandoned and left to be indulged for many generations, yet it's thanks to Rocket and Pyko that a true cure is found. The use of the term "loonies" may now seem insensitive but otherwise this is a strong plea for understanding the mentally ill and not writing them off. All in all this is quite a good little tale that would have been overlooked but for Rocket's later incorporation into the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Three additional stories are included as well. Groot's first appearance is a simple monster tale of its era where the hero is an intellectual who shows to his wife there's more to being a hero than being physically strong. Groot himself is just a strange alien that grows his body by absorbing wood and the main mystery is why a monarch is personally collecting specimens for examination. Rocket’s own debut in the pages of Marvel Preview is equally unmemorable bar for the very different location from what is to come. This black and white tale of Prince Wayfinder, "a modern Ulysses", sees a space wanderer come to Witch-World, a forest planet of wild trees and strange creatures, ruled by its own Kirke. On the planet he encounters a hunter in the form of Rocket, a talking racoon. It's very hard to fit this appearance with what's revealed in the limited series.

Also difficult to fit is Incredible Hulk #271, which sees the Hulk land on Halfworld and meet many of the characters in their first appearance but it's a slightly different set-up from the later limited series. There are no mentally ill on the planet and many of the item and company names are different. As a one-off tale of a strange planet visited by the Hulk it works but it's easy to see why more had to be added for the limited series to tell a mini-epic.

Despite exposing the continuity differences, this is a nice little collection that was released to tie in with the sudden new popularity of Rocket Raccoon and Groot when the Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out. It's a nice showcase of their early adventures and nearly thirty years after Marvel UK's split printing it's nice to see the limited series now reprinted here in one go.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Essential Thor volume 5

Essential Thor volume 5 reprints issues #196 to #220. The writing is all by Gerry Conway apart from the main part of issue #200 which is scripted by Stan Lee. The art is all by John Buscema apart from one issue by Sal Buscema. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Pluto, Tana Nile and Mercurio. Unusually these are taken from the Master Edition when previous Essentials have normally used more wordy material from the original or Deluxe editions.

This volume contains a lot of searching and quests. Maybe Gerry Conway was trying to tell us something. For there doesn't seem to be any real sense of direction for the series and instead we get a rather tired rehash of much of what has come before, tempered only by some new character creations and the odd individual idea. Overall it's very hard to resist the thought that the series is now stuck in a worship of the Lee-Kirby years and simply unwilling to try anything fresh. Instead we get a rather meandering mixture of battles for Asgard, fighting on Earth against the backdrop of Odin's disapproval, and journeys off into deep space with some rather unusual sights in space. It's as though the creators are either unable to imagine anything to take the series in a dramatically different direction or else too in awe of past greatness to risk tampering with it. But the result is the first demonstration of the problem that has bedevilled the series for years if not decades.

We begin with Thor and Sif separated on odd quests for Odin, with Thor and the Warriors Three battling Kartag, Keeper of the Twilight Well, in order to obtain water with which to fight Mangog. Meanwhile Sif and the valkyrie Hildegarde have been dispatched to Blackworld, a curious mirror of Earth where developments occur at an accelerated rate, in order to recruit the enigmatic Silas Grant, a ship's captain. When the Mangog finally reaches Asgard he is soon overpowered by Odin, albeit at the cost of his own life and so forcing Thor into confrontation with Hela. But also attacking is Pluto, the Greek god of death.

Issue #200 is odd and it's hard to tell if it's a fill-in or a one-off return for the anniversary by Stan Lee. The issue sees the Norns observing Pluto's attack on Thor but realising that this is not Thor will die before proceeding with another telling of the legend of Ragnorak. Whether this was intended or not, this issue brings up another problem for Thor in that it can be difficult to suspend expectations and believe that he really can die in an adventure when his final fate, and indeed also that of many of the other Asgardians, has been laid out in advance. It's the "Superboy problem" albeit without the hero's future published on a regular basis. Though it may stray from Norse mythology, although that's something the series has often done, it would probably be best to find a way to take Ragnorak out of the equation altogether. This could be achieved either by having it occur and then immediately resurrect the Asgardians to a life free of this destiny, or else recast it as only a prophecy of a possible future and invalidate some of the specifics on way or another. However awkward the heavy lifting needed to carry this out it would be a vital way to restore a degree off edginess to the series.

Once Pluto has been dispatched, we get the first original concept in the form of the humanoid Ego-Prime who is an inadvertent offspring of the Living Planet, created by accident by the Rigellians. The quests Odin sends a number of Asgardians on soon bear fruit in the form of three humans who are enhanced by draining off the power of Ego-Prime to create the first of the Young Gods. But this causes a rift between Thor and Odin. It also feels suspiciously like a real world swipe at Thor's co-creator. Jack Kirby was now working at DC on the Fourth World Saga featuring the New Gods, who were intended to be the deities who came after the Asgardians. Over at Marvel we have some rather forgettable new gods who are soon forgotten whilst the Asgardians prove their continued relevance. This cannot be a mere coincidence. Was this backhanded dismissal of the new gods in some way retaliation for Kirby's parody some months earlier of Lee and now editor Roy Thomas as the Funky Flashman and his sidekick Houseroy? If so then it's a more subtle approach but is still tit for tat.

Odin's actions lead to an argument with Thor that results in the latter being exiled for a while, together with a cluster of other characters ranging from Balder and the Warriors Three through Hildegarde to Tana Nile and Silas Grant. Maybe the intention was to create a more ensemble cast based on Earth but it doesn't really pan out that way. There's a brief hint of a alter-ego storyline as Thor discovers that a change of landlord has resulted in Dr Donald Blake's office being sealed up due to missing paperwork, but it never comes to anything and it's hard to tell if this was something separate that got forgotten or a lead into another encounter with Mephisto in which Thor's fellow exiles are turned against him.

What follows is initially more traditional with another encounter with both the Absorbing Man and Loki from which the volume's cover comes. But then we get an original creation in the form of Mercurio, the Fourth-Dimensional Man who has the power to generate both fire and ice, forcing Thor to come up with an imaginative way to defeat him. Then there's the Demon Druid who rampages through the UK until it becomes clear what his real aim is. This is followed by a return to the traditional pool of foes as Thor battles an invasion by Ulik and the trolls.

The later issues have another attempt at an epic, starting with Thor returning to Asgard to discover it's been taken over by lizard people called Sssth, led by the Sssthgar. Thor is tricked into helping the Sssth battle their old masters, the Vrllnexians, only for the Sssth to turn on him once the battle is done. This leads the Asgardians deeper into space, battling Mercurio again and encountering Xorr the God-Jewell, a giant sentient jewel that takes on humanoid form and briefly holds Sif captive within him, forcing Thor into a difficult choice. Another return to Asgard finds it again occupied by intruders, this time duplicates of Odin, Thor and the others who are actually spells cast by Igron. Finally Thor heads off into space once more, this time to investigate the pending destruction of the planet Rigel by the mysterious phenomenon known as the Black Stars. The Masters of the Black Stars turn out to be giants, making for some interesting problems of scale as Thor finds he is but an insect compared to them. But eventually he exposes the truth behind the situation.

Throughout this volume the art is consistently brilliant with John Buscema having now developed a distinctive style that is faithful to what Kirby set down without going into full-on mimicry. Often the visuals have good little moments, particularly the traditional wooden sailing ship that sails through space, managing to both look impressive and maintain the obvious absurdity of the concept. Sal Buscema also demonstrates his effectiveness as a full-in artist, easily capturing his brother's style to the point where it's easy to overlook which brother is on any particular issue's credits. But it's the writing which is the weak point of the volume.

Gerry Conway just seems unable to either write up to the level of great myths or else to take the series in a clear different direction. Instead it just squats in the house that Stan and Jack built, occasionally venturing out to add a new toy but otherwise just sticking to the same old formula. It gets worse with the repetitiveness of multiple quests, Thor repeatedly search for Sif, take-overs of Asgard and so forth. Nor are any of these retreads particularly spectacular, but rather they just go through the motions. Too often conflict is resolved either in a blink and you'll miss it action by Thor or else by Odin coming into action and exercising his great power. There is an attempt to create a new set-up when Thor and the others are exiled to Earth, but very little ever comes of this and the whole story strand.

Overall this is one the most turgid and unmemorable Essential volumes of all. There are no real stinkers amidst these issues but there's also nothing that stands out as memorable. Instead we have a run that shows the hard way just how easy it is for this series to wallow in the shadow of its creators instead of finding ways to take things forward.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A few Iron Man previews

As is becoming a standard, whenever I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and character I take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For Iron Man there are two issues, by coincidence the very next two in order.

Iron Man #88 & #89 written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska, reprinted in Essential Daredevil volume 6

These two issues see Iron Man battling with the Blood Brothers as they rampage through New York for reasons that will be disclosed in later issues, with Daredevil caught up in the action in the second issue when the fight blocks his route to the airport to catch a plane to the west coast and a crossover with Ghost Rider. By and large this is an Iron Man story with Daredevil firmly a guest star, to the point I question why it's even included in this volume, and it's mainly an action piece. There are some ongoing subplots continued such as Michael O'Brien's investigations and Roxanne Gilbert's actions, whilst Pepper Hogan has taken the decision to resign and move away with her sick husband, worried that if they stay he will again become Iron Man, a monster or worse.

It's unusual to see the very next issues after the end of the main Essential run but these show yet another writer taking on the series as Archie Goodwin returns once more, and some good moving forward of storylines that could potentially sink into a right mess or just be forgotten amidst the high turnover of writer. These two issues are a solid mix of fast action and ongoing developments.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 5

Essential Iron Man volume 5 contains issues #62 to #75 & #77 to #87 plus annual #3. Bonus material includes the covers of the reprint issues #76, annuals #1 & #2 and Giant-Size Iron Man #1. Most of the writing is by Mike Friedrich with other issues by Bill Mantlo and Len Wein, with one plot by Barry Alfonso and a couple of scripts by Roger Slifer. The annual is written by Steve Gerber. The main artist is George Tuska with other contributions by P. Craig Russell, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Chic Stone and Herb Trimpe with the annual drawn by Sal Buscema.

This volume sees a couple of changes to the costume, one of which is rather better known than the other, as well as the more general ongoing modifications to the weaponry to meet the latest threat. At one stage Tony replaces the collapsible set in his attaché case with a version that can become an ultra thin form worn beneath his clothing until a wrist gesture triggers it to expand out and cover the remaining portions of his body. There may be some attached technobabble but the whole process feels a little too close to a magic or fantastical costume better suited to less scientific heroes. The introduction of this mechanism is used as an opportunity to remove one of the more notorious changes made. This covers the entire period when Tony adds a nose to the helmet "to allow more expression to show". Although it does allow for the art to show more variety in the portrayal of his face, it does also look a bit silly and it's easy to see why it gets ditched as soon as a spurious explanation (that the new method of donning the costume requires the helmet to be symmetrical).

The major storyline in this volume is the "war of the super-villains" which runs from issue #68 until #81 in which the mysterious Black Llama manipulates a succession of super-villains into battling one another in order to obtain a special golden globe of power as the prize in their contest. The saga kicks off with a battle with Sunfire and the Mandarin, who now escapes the Unicorn's body, before the contest really gets going as the Mandarin battles the Yellow Claw in the first confrontation between Marvel's two biggest oriental masterminds with both deploying robots such as Ultimo. Other foes get drawn in as the saga continues, including Modok, the Mad Thinker, the Man-Bull, Melter and Whiplash but not all villains are attracted to an object that offers inner harmony as a precursor to success and we see a montage of big names like Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Fu Manchu turn it down whilst others like Magneto are missing in action. There is also a trip to Vietnam as both Tony and Roxanne search for Eddie March's brother Marty, encountering both the Crimson Dynamo and a hidden civilisation. Eventually the final battle sees Iron Man overcome the Claw but then all to Firebrand, whom the Llama declares the victor and takes him to his own dimension with Iron Man in pursuit.

Issue #72 has an unusual setting as Tony finds himself with time to kill in San Diego and so opts to attend Comic-Con, using his own armour as a costume. It may be only 1974 but the fandom portrayed show all the familiar signs of people obsessing over first issues, arguing about who did what, arguing about the merits of certain costume changes, parading in fancy dress (the word "cosplay" wasn't in use back then) and generally having a good time with fellow fans. There are fans of other science fiction and fantasy present as well with some Star Trek fans petitioning for a revival. In addition, there are creators who are behind schedule (Roy Thomas, in his last issue credited as editor, is even handing over a pink slip to Mike Friedrich but saying it's just a formality) but still taking time to meet the fans. All in all it's a good affectionate portrayal of the early years of organised fandom. Amidst all this the clash at the convention with the Man-Bull, Melter and Whiplash, as part of the Black Llama's machinations, is very much of lesser interest.

Just as the war of the super-villains is approaching its ultimate climax, we get one of the worst cases of delays seen in any Marvel title of the era. In the space of four issues (#76 to #79) there are no less than three fill-ins, including a reprint and a flashback adventure that normally could be easily inserted into the ongoing sequence with minimal fuss but here it appears as Iron Man is travelling between dimensions and thus it's impossible to make it a sudden spurious flashback, particularly as it's already structured as a flashback to drive a decision in the present day. The tale sees Tony as both himself and Iron Man in Vietnam during the war, testing a satellite guided canon that inflicts devastation in a village in a clandestine operation that's in violation of international law. The result of the canon and the counter attack result in widespread devastation and very few survivors, leading Iron Man to blast "Why" atop a mass grave. It's a piece questioning the whole basis of the Vietnam War, albeit somewhat late in the day as it arrived on the newstands a couple of months after the Fall of Saigon that ended the war and a couple of years after the US had withdrawn its active troop presence. The other fill-in was more timely, being a classic house of horrors story as Tony rescues a couple whose car has broken down and they take refuge in a creepy isolated house occupied by strange beings including a scientist with a funny name who performs life changing experiments. This would have been on the shelves just as The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released though Doctor Kurakill isn't as memorable a character as Doctor Frank N. Furter. Still her henchman, Quasar the mutated ape, does feel like an appropriate homage to the ape obsession of the 1950s. But in general, even allowing for the fact that issue #76 is only represented by the cover and so not interrupting the flow in this edition, these issues show a massive letdown as the momentum on the main story slams to a halt. It should not be surprising that after all these fill-ins Friedrich writes only two further issues. The end of issue #81 may try to present it as a writer bowing out at the natural end of a good run, and I don't know how the contemporary letterspages presented it, but here it feels like a writer missing one deadline too many and consequently being deliberately let go of.

When the series eventually resumes the war of the super-villains story it takes a decidedly odd turn as the Black Llama, Firebrand and Iron Man arrive in a parallel universe in which the United States is covered by a patchwork of independent states and the Llama is the king of one of them. The Llama's actions are explained away as the consequence of madness brought about by a cosmic imbalance when people cross between dimensions and he's actually the rightful ruler who has returned just in time to face a revolt by his daughter & regent's main advisor and wife, who deploy a mechanical dragon. Although there's some good character work as Iron Man nearly succumbs to the madness of the cosmic imbalance, the whole thing is such a jarring contrast with the earlier issues that it feels like it was conceived for another series altogether. It's a very disappointing end to both a lengthy storyline and Friedrich's run, made worse by the extra delays and fill-ins.

There are other foes who show up over the course of the volume including an inconclusive battle with the villainous Doctor Spectrum, the Marvel homage of Green Lantern. Iron Man has at times been matched with Green Lantern in comparisons of Marvel's Avengers and DC's Justice League of America, but it's never been the easiest fit and feels more like a default of picking the most prominent male heroes after Captain America & Batman and Thor & Superman have been lined up. Consequently such a fight seems a mismatch and this one drags on over several issues, even dragging in Thor to battle Iron Man who's been possessed by the Power Prism that gives Spectrum his powers. The story also sees Tony's friend Eddie March don the armour only to be severely injured. His life is saved but at the cost of his ability to walk and in the process he's temporarily transformed into the monstrous Freak, a fate previously shared by Happy Hogan when undergoing special energy treatment.

One theme that pops up again and again throughout the volume are the different expectations of men and women in relationships. Happy Hogan takes some time to accept that Pepper is now a high flying corporate assistant and is not going to meekly head to the kitchen to play housewife; this causes some strain on their marriage and at one point Pepper turns to Tony. However the marriage is soon restored and they remain friends even after Happy impersonates Iron Man at a party and gets injured by being drawn into action when Tony is kidnapped. Whiplash also has expectations of his fiancée Vicki Snow who is the manager of a Stark Industries plant when the villain is working undercover as head of research. Tony's own attitude to Roxanne Gilbert is more respectful but her relationship with Tony is increasingly forgettable.

The last six issues see a quick succession of writers as the series tries to find its direction. There's a forgettable encounter with the Red Ghost and his super apes in which Happy is injured; the treatment sees him become the Freak once more but this is getting overused. An ongoing subplot involves police officer Michael O'Brien investigating the death of his brother Kevin back in issue #46, convinced that Tony has arranged a cover-up, but it's been so long since the death that it becomes hard to find the subplot that compelling. There's also a move to toughen up and make more serious one of Iron Man's earliest foes as Jack Frost returns but now using the name Blizzard.

The annual follows the formula of teaming up two heroes to fight a villain more usually associated with a third in a sequel to one of the last's stories. Here we get a meeting between Iron Man and the Man-Thing in the Florida swamps that follows up on an early Marvel Two-in-One story as the Molecule Man returns from the dead, along with further social commentary as the people of Citrusville react with suspicion and hostility as Stark International (renamed in the regular issues from Stark Industries in acknowledgement at diversification of holdings) sets about rebuilding Omegaville. However the latter thread doesn't really go anywhere and just feels like a jibe at small towns for the sake of it. The Molecule Man's resurrection may have seemed like exciting fantasy and psychological thriller in 1976, but today this tale of a grown man possessing the body of a nine year old girl feels extremely dodgey even though there's no overt hint of anything sexual in the situation. Beyond that the story suffers the problem that afflicts so many Man-Thing tales in that interaction between the monster and other characters is rather limited, resulting in him stumbling through the story including a needless encounter with Iron Man on the road before turning up at the climax to provide the ultimate containment for Molecule Man. All in all this annual is a fairly typical example of the forgettable tales that were commonplace in original 1970s annuals. It also feels more like a Man-Thing tale than an Iron Man one, with Gerber taking the opportunity to return to the character after his run and the original series had ended.

It's telling that the main thing anyone remembers about this era of Iron Man is the nose, a short-lived modification to the armour that doesn't last very long. Otherwise this is a very average volume with occasional bursts of momentum that get squandered amidst excessive fill-ins and bizarre conclusions. The foes are mainly so so and there's sometimes too much reuse of ideas such as one of Tony's friends donning the Iron Man armour, getting injured and then the treatment accidentally transforms him into the Freak. Little in this volume really stands out.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

A single Captain America preview

As is becoming a standard, whenever I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and character I take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For Captain America there is just one such issue.

Captain America #268 written by J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Mike Zeck, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 5

This is the middle part of a crossover with Defenders that sees Captain America drawn into the team's struggle with August Masters of a shady organisation that works with psychics and is try to start a world war. The Defenders have been captured and Steve gets a psychic jolt after a date with Bernie ends badly. He investigates as Captain America, recognising the telepath, and infiltrates the complex, only to get captured.

Reading this issue in isolation shows how confusing this can often be since, as is so often the case with later issues reprinted elsewhere, it's part of a wider crossover. Although there are some elements drawn from earlier Captain America stories it really could have been told completely in the pages of Defenders, a title that was hardly unknown for heroes guesting for an adventure or two and it would probably make more sense than intruding upon another series. There are, however, some nice scenes of Steve and Bernie that show how his old fashioned outlook persists and how he is just clueless at realising how each feels for the other. But overall this issue on its own is forgettable.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Essential Captain America volume 7

Essential Captain America volume 7 is made up of issues #231 to #257. The writing is mainly by first Roger McKenzie and then Roger Stern with plotting or scripting contributions by Jim Shooter, Michael Fleisher, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and other issues by Peter B. Gillis, Paul & Alan Kupperberg, Mike W. Barr, Steven Grant and Bill Mantlo. The art sees the end of Sal Buscema's run and the entirety of John Byrne's plus other issues by Fred Kida, Alan Kupperberg, Frank Springer, Don Perlin, Rich Buckler, Carmine Infantino, Jerry Bingham, Gene Colan and Lee Elias. Additionally issue #257 included a couple of filler reprints from Not Brand Echh #11 & #12, both by Marie Severin. Also reprinted are a handful of letterspages on which Roger Stern expounds his approach to the character and series. The labels see a separate post.

This is another volume that shows that when Cap gets a good committed creative team then things can start to gel with firm foundations and a strong string of exciting adventures, but that also when a team leaves suddenly the book quickly sinks back into the quagmire of fill-ins, aimless wandering, excessive flashbacks and sub par adventures. Still the good in this volume strongly outweighs the bad.

The volume starts off with a multi-part storyline in which Cap faces off against the National Force, a bunch of modern day American neo-Nazis who brainwash crowds into support for their racial war. In the process, it is revealed that the National Force's Grand Director is the Captain America of the 1950s under the influence of Doctor Faustus. Over the course of successive issues Cap is forced to face down foes who were once friends and a man with his own face, with little help save for Daredevil. At one point Cap himself is brainwashed and winds up fighting for the National Force with a swastika painted on his shield. It's a chilling image that underlines how easy it is to take patriotism and unity and turn them into divisive weapons of hate. Equally chilling is the way that individual members of the National Force choose to incinerate themselves rather than risk capture.

But as well as the National Force seeking to purge America of "undesirable" elements, the storyline also serves as a grand clearing out of a lot of elements of Captain America's mythology. The very first pages see the Falcon confirm that he is going solo for now. Over the course of these issues Cap also cuts on his formal ties to S.H.I.E.L.D., though he accepts one final mission under a fill-in writer that takes him to the Himalayas where he has to rescue a telepathic girl from the Mind-Master and a whole range of henchmen, some more real than others. As Steve Rogers, Cap briefly revives his role as a police officer only to abandon it, symbolically stripping off his uniform in the commissioner's office and leaving it there as he goes into costumed action. The 1950s Cap is underused in the story, providing little more than a shock cliffhanger and a chance to clear him out as well when he seemingly kills himself by incineration. But even more shocking are the fates of two of Captain America's partners. A flashback in issue #236 reveals how, as a test to demonstrate his brainwashing was totally complete, the 1950s Cap accepted an order to shoot and kill Bucky. He may not have been the original Bucky, but that's due to a latter-day retcon and nonetheless he was the partner of the Captain America of the day. Casually killing him off in a flashback in which he doesn't even get to speak feels like a quick sweeping away of the character as part of a grand clear out of just about all the elements in Cap's life. Then the following issue goes on step further.

Earlier in the story Sharon has succumbed to the brainwashing and become another of the National Force spreading hate and fear on the streets. She is part of a group that gets into a confrontation with Cap but then she disappears and is not clearly seen when the others incinerate themselves to a crisp, leaving her fate uncertain. After the defeat of Faustus and the Force, Cap gives a press conference to explain his actions whilst under the influence of the brainwashing, and is then taken aside and shown news footage of his earlier fight. There he sees Sharon incinerate herself. It's a dark moment, made all the worse for taking place in the back of a news van as Cap plays the tape over and over again, realising there's nothing he can do for her now. Their relationship often came under pressure because their work often kept them apart, yet here they were so close to each other and he didn't even see her fate. It's a time when a major character's death in flashback works well, but coming so soon after the casual disposal of the 1950s Bucky and the dropping of so many other aspects of Cap's life and the result is a full cleaning of the slate over just seven issues.

The slate doesn't remain blank for long though. After some time away off panel, Steve soon finds a new home, a new career and a new supporting cast. Settling in a flat in Brooklyn, he goes into business as a freelance artist, leading to many a good joke about how artists struggle for work and have to deal with all kinds of bizarre clients. His portfolio case makes for a good hiding place for his shield in a change from forever hiding it on his back. Meanwhile Steve's building contains a variety of other tenants, each with their own career and back story making for a good supporting cast. The motherly figure of the building is Anna Kapplebaum, a survivor of the Holocaust who was saved in the camps by Cap's intervention many years ago; although she doesn't make the connection she finds she somehow recognises Steve and takes an instant liking to him. She is forced to relive her memories when the camp doctor, Dr Mendelhaus, resurfaces and is sought both by neo-Nazis based in Latin America and by Nazi hunters. In the resulting confrontation she finds herself facing her former tormentor holding a pistol. Less developed at this stage is Mike Farrell, a fire-fighter. Then there's Josh Cooper, a teacher of children with special needs. And, although she doesn't arrive until the Stern-Byrne run, there's Bernie Rosenthal, a glass blower who was at university with Mike. She almost has "future girlfriend" written on her forehead, taking an instant liking to him but getting frustrated with his frequent disappearances, including when he gets a phone call summoning him to the United Kingdom just when they're on the sofa together. It's a good mix of likeable characters who give Steve a strong life away from the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as offering strong story potential such as when one of the pupils at Joe's school suddenly dies and his father goes a grief-fuelled act of vengeance against members of the education board, the social security officer and his son's teacher, blaming them all for the death.

Roger McKenzie's run fizzles out in a sea of fill-ins with Cap facing a number of forgettable foes such as Bobo and Big Thunder, local mobsters trying to drive a man out of his home when he's the last tenant in a building and then trying to create a reputation by defeating Cap. Or there's the Manipulator, a being with two faces that subjects Cap to hallucinations after being hired by revenge seeking ex-police sergeant Muldoon. Or Adonis, a man whose attempt to replace his body goes disastrously wrong. The fill-ins at the end of the volume aren't much either, with Cap returning to a British castle where he dealt with a rocket during the war and now he has to deal with shrinking rays and the mysterious Druid. Or there's the Master of Matrix Eight, another neo-Nazi group headed by a former assistant of Baron Zemo. More notable is the first encounter between Cap and the Punisher, making for a strong contrast in their crime-fighting methods yet also showing some of the similarities between the two men.

But the big highlight of this volume is the run by Roger Stern and John Byrne. It comprises just nine issues (#247 to #255) and yet it delivers a high octane run that quickly grasps the core concept of Cap and proceeds to put him through a good mix of adventures with grand scale threats and closer, more personal moments. It also manages to deliver two memorable anniversary issues, both for issue #250 and for the character's fortieth anniversary in issue #255. Amongst the highlights is a sorting out of Cap's origin in the very first issue. In the space of just four pages much of the confusion added in the last volume is swept away as a set of artificially implanted memories, with Steve's roots as a New York child of poverty during the Great Depression restored, and to back it up Cap discovers his old army trunk and journal. Later issue #255 contains a retelling of Cap's origin and summation of his career, with much of it even produced directly from the pencils, producing a suitably retro Golden Age feel. Details are sorted out such as the name of the inventor of the Super Soldier Serum or the reasons behind the early changes in the costume and shield. The result is a comprehensive version of the origin that can stand as the definitive without too much querying. (Although it does seem to implicitly delete the adventure in Newfoundland right before Cap went on ice for decades, though that's an addition to the saga that's best forgotten.)

Issue #250 came out in a presidential election year and sees the New Populist Party attempt to draft Cap as their candidate for President after he saves their convention from terrorists. There are some subtle jabs at both the standard procession of serving politicians as candidates, at the usual assumption by third parties that only they can offer anything positive, and also at the desire for a leader that people trust and respect regardless of his experience and positions. It's one of the more gentle parodies of US politics that Marvel have done over the years but it allows Cap to make an assertion of his role in serving the American dream over and above the nation in reality.

The rest of the run puts Cap up against a number of different foes in some unusual combinations such as Machine Smith and Dragon Man plus robotic versions of both Baron Strucker and various Marvel heroes, or Mr Hyde and Batroc who find they have very different approaches to threatening New York City for money. But the highlight comes as Cap visits the UK where the vampire Baron Blood is once more stalking the land and threatening his brother, the original Union Jack. The story serves as a climax for both one of Cap's former fellow Invaders and his arch nemesis but also as a rebirth for a hero's spirit. Overall this is a well drawn and strongly scripted run with both creators firing at all strength and it well deserves its reputation.

This volume somewhat encapsulates the problems that the series has had over the years with the best creative teams rarely lasting long and a sea of weaker runs and fill-in issues leaving things in a mess with underdeveloped elements in the present and awkward additions to the character's past. But it also shows how it is possible to get beyond many of the problems by making a concerted effort to clear up messier points and clarify the past, allowing for the character to be taken back to his basic position as a champion for the American dream. Here we get both good clean-ups and one of the strongest, if shortest lasting, runs yet seen in the series, making for a volume where the good heavily outweighs the bad.

Essential Captain America volume 7 - creator labels

Yet again there is a volume with lots of creators so here's a separate post for some of them.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update '89 volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update '89 volume 1 collects all eight issues of the series. As a bonus it also includes a chunk of corrected, updated and additional entries from the first reprint of the Deluxe Edition. Peter Sanderson remains the main writer but on this occasion the editors are Gregory Wright followed by Terry Kavanagh.

As the initial editorial explains, this series arrived a year later than originally planned due to the scale of the project. By and large it focuses upon characters who didn't get entries in the Deluxe Edition whether due to being too new, having only subsequently risen to prominence or being simply omitted the first time round. There do seem to be rather a lot of supporting characters suddenly given entries such as Aunt May or Ben Urich or Wong, almost as though extra entries were deliberately sought to pad the series out to eight issues. There is no separate "Book of the Dead" on this occasion with deceased characters instead incorporated into the main alphabetical sequence. The sole exception is an entry for Madelyne Pryor right at the end but this is presumably to make up for an omission within this series's own run.

The entries generally use the following pro forma:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Legal status
  • Other aliases
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • History
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Strength level
  • Known superhuman powers
  • (Other) Abilities
  • Weapons
  • Transportation

There are occasional variations such as "First modern appearance" for characters who debuted before the 1960s, with the later issues also listing the actual first appearances for such characters, whilst Captain Britain's entry includes both his first ever appearance in each costume and also the first appearance in Marvel US comics.

The entries continue to try to make sense of some more awkward pieces of comics history, such as the one for Gabe Jones acknowledging that US Army units were normally segregated during the Second World War but suggests Colonel Sawyer was ahead of his time. The entry for Master Menace, the Squadron Supreme equivalent of Lex Luthor, expresses disbelief that a lifelong enmity could stem from an incident that affected his hair growth (here accelerating it rather than the original story where Superboy accidentally made Luthor bald) but admits that no alternative explanation has been given and settles for speculation about a nervous breakdown that could also cover up inconsistent characterisation.

Early issues include more data corrections from the Deluxe Edition. Notably a number of them include the original first appearances for several Golden and Atlas Age characters, races and also mythical characters like Loki, showing the longstanding tension about just which comics from before 1961 actually are part of continuity. A correction for Ka-Zar does its best to explain how British peerage and courtesy titles work and that "Lord Firstname Surname" is inaccurate. (In fairness to Marvel titles and styles are complex and difficult grasp, though certain peers themselves have no excuse for getting their titles wrong.) There's also a quick rectification made when the wrong entry for the Chameleon was printed; the correct text is printed a couple of issues later.

Later issues include mini-updates for entries in the Deluxe Edition that haven't been replaced; however these stop midway through with the Ms at the end of issue #7 with the final two pages of issue #8 given over to corrections from this series. Also absent once again is the long promised Appendix covering characters and concepts that don't merit full entries. By this point it has gone beyond a joke.

Going for a selective update rather than yet another full edition of the Handbook has kept this series to a single volume and is easier on readers' wallets, both in the 1980s and now. For these points these series deserves some credit. But it often feels that some of the entries here have not been chosen because the characters have sprung to prominence since the Deluxe Edition or that the previous round made a major omission, but rather they've been given an entry just to make up the page and issue count. Had it been truly confined to major updates, serious omissions and new characters then it could probably shed at least a couple of issues. This reprint is necessary to complement the rest of the Deluxe Edition but I am still to be convinced that any of it needed to be included in the Essentials.
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