Friday, 21 November 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 reprints the Hulk stories from The Hulk! magazine #16 to #27. The first half is mainly written by Doug Moench with one story by Roy Thomas and another by Bruce Patterson; the latter half is a mix of Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, David Anthony Kraft, Bill Flanagan, Lora Byrne and J.M. DeMatteis. The art is mainly by Gene Colan and Ron Wilson; other stories are drawn by Mike Zeck, Herb Trimpe, Bob McLeod, John Buscema and Brent Anderson. And that means once again there's a separate labels post.

This volume has some of the most problematic reproduction of any of the later Essentials. The original magazines used a more sophisticated colouring system than the overlay method of the contemporary comics but one result is that black & white separations are now unavailable and so the material is reproduced with the original colour "burnt in" as shades of grey. This often results in a more sophisticated look compared to the regular comics of the era. Unfortunately many of the captions used a coloured background which now often appear as black text on a dark grey background and are very difficult to read without straining the eyes and/or deploying extra light. Some of the last few issues are in a better state, partially because the series reverted to black and white but also because many of the captions are white on black, but overall this volume is something of a pain to read.

The magazine series was contemporary to the later seasons of the Incredible Hulk television series and offers up a hybrid of the Hulk's screen and comic adventures. There are almost no references to the Hulk's comic supporting cast bar one retelling of the origin and instead we have a focus on Bruce Banner travelling across the United States and beyond, hunting for a cure and encountering a variety of mostly one-off characters and situations. However Banner's identity as the Hulk is public knowledge and on several occasions he is either recognised by someone who works out who he is, or else he gives his name and gets out of a tricky situation by trading upon the knowledge that he can turn into a rampaging monster.

The stories themselves are a general mix but few really stand out. A few characters pop up more than once but don't really last. The situations include a number of families with interesting internal dynamics, with the Hulk sought for a variety of purposes including treasure hunting or as the quarry in a big game safari in Africa. There's an interesting modern take on the story of Robinson Crusoe as Bruce joins a man who has opted out of society to live on a deserted island, only to see paradise end as modern day pirates chase a couple there. It also has the memorable scene of the Hulk diving into the sea to pick up the whole island and walk it to the mainland shore. Elsewhere Bruce goes to help tackle a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, with the Hulk ultimately fixing the problem. There's a convoluted tale as a politician manipulates multiple sides over a controversial dam in order to achieve a public relations triumph to propel him to the White House. Bruce tries settling down first working for a school for retarded children and then for a carnival but neither works out. There's a mess with a cult led by an old friend of Bruce's followed by a tense encounter with a paranoid family of gun obsessives then the chaos of a family of hillbillies who kidnap Bruce by accident and try to use him in convoluted dynamics relating to a daughter's suitor. There's a visit to Las Vegas where the Hulk is caught up in an organised crime feud. Nature is also a foe with one tale seeing the Hulk surviving a flooded river.

One of the few recurring characters is Dr Shiela Marks, a psychologist specialising in multiple personality syndrome (and to its credit her introduction avoids the common mistake in fictional to confuse MPS with schizophrenia). It's one of the first times that the Banner/Hulk dynamic has been expressed in psychological terms. Marks is driven by a determination to prove herself over her family's traditional expectations and professional criticism, but the first attempt to tackle the Hulk instead results in the Hulk's personality briefly controlling Banner's body and going on a rampage through New York, believing it to be a very different and far more hostile environment. She tries again in the more isolated environment of Bermuda but without direct success though she and Bruce face down the very different menace of brothers based in the underwater city of Hydropolis trying to drive humanity into living in the seas. Throughout the tales there are strong hints that she and Bruce could become an item but nothing is developed of it before a change away from having a permanent writer. Another attempt at a mental cure is made with a hypnotist that sends Bruce into a surreal fantasy but doesn't resolve the issues.

Issue #23 contains "A Very Personal Hell", the most infamous story in this run, though contrary to popular myth the scene everyone focuses upon is actually only a side incident in the story. Whilst in New York City and trying to obtain some of the latest science books with the latest research that may offer a hope of a cure, Bruce stays at a youth hostel and has a nasty encounter in the communal showers. For two very camp men try to rape him and it's clear this is not the first time they've pounced on a passing stranger. Now some of the elements of the portrayal may reflect early 1980s stereotypes that have since been forgotten (much as the story's general setting around Times Square is from an era when it had a reputation as a seedy, run-down area very different from what it is today) and so it's not easy to objectively judge what buttons this scene did and didn't press. But the two would-be rapists are classic effeminate, over the top, outrageously camp types that make their sexuality all too clear. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about a comic depicting a rape attempt as part of a generally down beat and horrific environment the lead character is enduring, and the absence of the Comics Code Authority on the magazines meant that more could be shown here than in a regular comic. And sexual assault and rape are sadly horrors that happen all too often in the real world. So the scene was probably written with the best intentions of helping to establish just what a horrible environment Bruce has found himself in. But the real problem is the lack of balance. At the time depictions of openly gay characters was almost non-existent in most media. It's true that most characters appear without anything being said about their sexual orientation and some could quite easily be gay, but that doesn't provide any balance in the slightest. Instead the only overtly gay characters depicted in not just the issue or even the series as a whole but across Marvel comics in general at the time play into stereotypes and fears about all gay men being sex obsessed and trying to rape every vaguely cute guy that comes along. It is not a defence that the attempted rape could have been a heterosexual one as there were enough portrayals of heterosexual people across the comics that such a hypothetical pair of rapists would not have been the sole representatives to appear.

It's also deeply uncomfortable that this story was written by Jim Shooter, Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief, who generally blocked depictions of gay characters in the Comics. That approach and other socially traditional restrictions have at times been defended as corporate level decisions, either due to the outlooks of the company's owners or else the nervousness of licensees who had been assured the characters used on their merchandise would not be put in situations that made the products unsellable in traditionalist areas. (And when this issue was originally published homosexual acts were still illegal in much of the United States as well as in two-thirds of the United Kingdom's legal jurisdictions.) Yes such corporate cowardice is easy to criticise when one is not personally at risk of the economic consequences but Marvel's history of pushing against the boundaries, most famously the Spider-Man drugs issues, showed that it could take a stand when there was the will to do so. And if such will wasn't forthcoming then it would have been better to depict no homosexual characters at all rather than having their total representation being a pair of predatory rapist stereotypes. It may not have been the intention to offend anyone other than rapists but the outcome was very much an offensive one.

This whole state of affairs is a pity on another level because the rest of the story is quite strong, showing a dark world of drug taking, domestic violence, depression, family break-up, disapproving relatives, child custody battles and more. Bruce very briefly finds happiness with Alice Steinfeld. However transforming to the Hulk takes Bruce away and Alice succumbs to loneliness, committing suicide. Another story in the issue, "Clothes Call", is more humorous, seeing Bruce taken in by a housewife who tries to seduce him but then her husband comes home.

Overall this is a rather inconsequential volume. There are some stories that go broader and deeper than what could be done in the Code comics of the era but this approach can backfire as happened notoriously here. And there is some delving into the very nature of what generate the Hulk years before this became a standard part of handling the character. But the run as a whole just doesn't feel especially satisfying. The decision to stand aloof from the regular comic and mirror the style of the television series is an understandable commercial move but it hasn't produced a particularly amazing set of stories that stand out for all the right reasons. This feels like an early example of over exposing a character.

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 - creator labels

Once more we have a volume with a lot of creators so here's a separate post to carry some of the labels.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 contains issues #76 to #100 plus the crossover Daredevil #178. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both Power Man and Iron Fist. The writing on the regular series consists of the end of Mary Jo Duffy's run, the start of Kurt Busiek's, a brief interlude by Denny O'Neil and individual issues by Mike W. Barr, with Chris Claremont co-plotting, and Steven Grant. The main artists are Kerry Gammill, Denys Cowan and Ernie Chan with individual issues by Rudy Nebres, Frank Miller, Mark Bright, Keith Pollard and Greg LaRocque. The Daredevil issue is both written and drawn by Frank Miller. And with so many creators a separate post for creator labels is needed.

The back cover of the volume goes so far as to trumpet a "Special guest appearance by Elektra: Assassin!" but it's something of a false colour as she only appears in a subplot in the Daredevil issue and doesn't interact with Power Man or Iron Fist. Was this simply a copywriter picking from a list of characters without actually reading the issues or was it someone deciding they had a tough sell on their hands and so threw in any sales hook no matter how remote? Because this volume is relatively tame. There aren't any spectacular developments for either of the main characters and few long running subplots. Instead this volume covers a period of largely run of the mill adventures.

The main exceptions come towards the end of the volume. There's a recurring theme of Power Man encountering ever more hostility in the Times Square area near his own office and apartment above the cinema. (When this series was originally published, Times Square had a very different reputation from today.) More and more people accuse him of being a sell out or an "Oreo" - brown on the outside but white on the inside - to the point that when the latest criminal to take on the mantel of Chemistro seeks to set himself up as a hero protecting the criminals, many locals side with him, especially in crowds watching his fights with Power Man. This leads to Power Man deciding to leave the area altogether, going so far as to move all his possessions out and saying his goodbyes. However on his final look around the area he comes across a gang of thugs mugging an old woman, believing the area to be safe for crime now that Power Man has gone. This causes him to reassess his plans and stay put to protect the ordinary folk on the street. The subplot also contrasts the different outlooks between his former girlfriend Claire Temple, now appearing on a regular basis as the hospital doctor who seems to handle every medical requirement going, and current girlfriend Harmony Young, a model. Claire's outlook is down to earth and focused on the needs of the ordinary people whilst Harmony seeks glamour and is obsessed with her appearance. Harmony starts flat-sharing with Misty Knight, and generating tension over everything from being in the communal areas at the wrong moments to criticising and rearranging Misty's wardrobe. This latter theme is soon forgotten amidst the turnover of writers. At one point Harmony is mistaken for Misty by Sabretooth, seeking revenge for a defeat earlier in the volume, and left with a badly slashed face, opening up the possibility that she will have to face a changed life and struggle with the loss of her career. However all is rapidly restored to normal by plastic surgeons just as we get to a change of writers. More durable across writers is the underlying tension about whether Luke and Claire will get back together, with Dr Burnstein even trying to matchmake them, and Harmony getting jealous of how often Luke is meeting Claire seemingly in the course of work.

Of the three regular writers on this volume we have one in the latter stages of their most prominent series, another starting out before they were famous and one of the biggest name writers of the Bronze Age of Comics. Unfortunately this volume is another example of how even some of the most acclaimed writers can fail to set a series on fire with Denny O'Neil's run seeing the series veer away from the gritty yet light hearted mainly New York based fun under Mary Jo Duffy and instead become much more generic, taking the Heroes for Hire out of the city on assignments such as stopping supply lorries being stolen by the Mole Man or attempts on the life of a musician. The series soon comes back to New York for a forgettable team-up with Moon Knight's supporting crew, while the hero himself spends almost the entire issue trapped in an overheated empty water tank, or an unsubtle tale about the drug acid, or an encounter with military mercenaries. It just feels run of the mill and it's a relief that this run is over so soon. The replacement shows more promise quickly. It's a surprise to discover Kurt Busiek's name on this volume, from over a decade before his breakout with series such as Marvels and Thunderbolts. His work here lacks the perspective of looking at how people react to living in a world of heroes and there isn't much sign of the deep level continuity that makes use of many an obscure back issue, though he does get a strong grasp on the series's own continuity and brings together a number of disparate characters. The last few issues of the volume see a multi-part storyline that brings back old foes of both heroes such as Master Khan, Ward Meachum, Shades and Comanche, adds in a new foe in the form of the wolf woman Fera, and makes Iron Fist face the loss of his soul. It's a strong tale that serves to wrap up some of the outstanding threads though it's disappointing to again have the anniversary issue taken up with a K'un-Lun derived storyline. Still it shows a good handling of the mythology that has been built up by both characters' solo series and then this combined one.

The Daredevil crossover seems to have been to promote this series, with an advert reproduced that trumpets Ol' Hornhead visiting. The tale as a whole starts out serious in the pages of Daredevil but veers off into comedy as the Heroes for Hire get commissioned to protect Matt Murdock who finds them a nuisance and distraction. It leads into an oddball tale set around a theatre as all three heroes try to secure the career of a young dancer amidst a web of petty rivalries and international espionage, leading to a slapstick chase in the middle of a live performance. Another source of comedy comes in issue #79. Bob Diamond has been in a play performing "Professor Gamble", a time-travelling scientist who battles the robotic "Dredlox". Even the play is called "The Day of the Dredlox". The homage is all too clear to me but I wonder just how well Doctor Who and the Daleks were known about by the mainstream US comics audience in 1982. And then we discover that the characters in the play are more than fiction-within-fiction.

The humour sits alongside some more serious moments such as the return of Warhawk on a crusade against all people of Oriental origin, blaming them all for what happened to him in Vietnam, or a trip to the north African country of Halwan where tensions are building with its neighbours. Other foes are more down to Earth, such as an appearance by Unus the Untouchable who is focusing just on petty crime to raise funds, having realised that the authorities are ignoring such low scale matters (in another sign of the times as this was about a decade before Rudy Giuliani heralded a new approach to crime). Later they prevent a jailbreak by Hammerhead with help from the Maggia including Man Mountain Marko and a new Eel. The series continues its mix of big and small scale villains, with various spies thrown in for good measure, serving clients, helping those who can't afford their services for nothing or a nominal fee (one boy gets help for just 25c) and facing down a variety of old foes. Throughout the later stages Power Man's friend D.W. Griffith starts filming their exploits for a documentary, though when he captures on film Ward Meachum hiring Shades and Comanche it leads to Griffith's being kidnapped.

Overall this run manages to maintain a broad family feel to the title, with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing both regularly appearing in both action and personal roles. Many issues end with one or both of the Heroes for Hire going for pizza, predating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' obsession, and overall it's clear just how strong the bonds are between the various odd couples that it's credible they would put their lives on the line for one another. The artwork is generally quite good but one irritation is the way certain female character's hairstyles keep changing to the point that it can be difficult to recognise them on first sight. Misty Knight, Harmony Young and Claire Temple all exhibit this trait and the script doesn't always immediately identify them on first appearance. Still it's only a minor niggle.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries are a nice addition that often help fill out the end pages of a volume. However they have a tendency to give away details of major storylines that haven't appeared by the end of the particular volume. Whilst Power Man's entry is from the Deluxe Edition, contemporary to issue #125, Iron Fist was strangely absent from that edition altogether (he should have appeared in issue #5, contemporary to Power Man and Iron Fist #123) and so his entry is from the later Update '89.

This volume is steady but not spectacular. Most of it follows a formula of mixing an odd couple, street level grittiness and some tongue in cheek fun in a good blend but without producing any particular star-shining moments. Approximately the middle of the volume shows the series going off the rails under a new writer without a decent grasp on the title but fortunately this doesn't last long. The last part shows the earliest work by a future star writer and though it may lack many of his hallmarks it nonetheless holds up reasonably well. This series has dated in some surprising ways in its portrayal of New York but overall it remains solid stuff. There may not be any particular standouts but collectively the series still holds its own and broadly the volume is pretty good.

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 - creator labels

We have yet another volume with lots of creators so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 2

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains issues #22-46 of the original Captain Marvel series plus Iron Man #55 and Marvel Feature #12. Issue #36 is a reprint with a framing sequence that is included here. The Iron Man issue is a prologue to a storyline in the main series whilst the Marvel Feature issue ties in with that and is also part of the try-out for Marvel Two-in-One. Bonus material includes a map of Titan from issue #27 plus the covers, pin-ups and extra pages from the reprint series The Life of Captain Marvel. The writing on the main series is primarily by Mike Friedrich, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart either solo or in various combinations with Al Milgrom co-plotting some issues and a few by Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. The art is mainly by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and Wayne Boring with an individual issue by Alfredo Alcala. Friedrich and Starlin also co-produce both the Iron Man and Marvel Feature issues.

Although the numbering begun in 1968 is continued, this volume represents the third attempt to launch an ongoing Captain Marvel title in less than five years. Once again this perseverance is almost certainly down to a desire to maintain the trademark at a time when DC had obtained the licence for the Fawcett Captain Marvel and would soon relaunch him on the world in his own title. US trademark law is big on the "use it or lose it" principle so Marvel Comics couldn't just rely on a registration but had to actively use the mark "Captain Marvel" in order to prevent others using it. This shows in the first few issues as we get a fairly generic superhero series with the only real twist being Rick Jones increasingly resenting sharing his physical space with Mar-Vell and resisting transformation no matter how dire the situation. The villains consist of Megaton the Nuclear Man and Dr Mynde, both men affected by radiation. Megaton has mutated into a solid form but is set to explode whilst Mynde is an ambitious scientist whose body succumbed to radiation poisoned so he transplanted his head onto a robotic body. Neither foe is terribly exciting and both die at the end of their first encounter. There's yet another change to Captain Marvel's set-up as his powers are altered so he is now reliant on solar energy for his powers and is noticeably weaker at night. A supporting cast is grown in the form of musician Lou-Anne Savannah and her uncle scientist Benjamin but all in all this is a series still searching for a purpose beyond trademark protection.

On first encounter Iron Man #55 seems an odd choice for inclusion as it doesn't feature Captain Marvel or any of the characters from his series. Instead we get the introduction of a new villain and his opponent. But that villain is Thanos and the opponent Drax the Destroyer, with the issue serving as a prologue to the best known storyline in this volume. Over no less than nine issues, with bimonthly publication making it last eighteen months, we get an extended tale of Captain Marvel's battle with Thanos, establish the Titan as one of the mega-villains of the Marvel universe. The epic spread beyond the pages of Captain Marvel itself, with Iron Man teaming up with the Thing to battle Thanos's minions the Blood Brothers in Marvel Feature #12, Moondragon being aided by Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own series and the Avengers taking on Thanos's armed forces in their series. Only the Marvel Feature issue is included but it isn't very critical to the ongoing plot and doesn't justify its presence here whilst other tie-in issues are ignored. I suspect the reason is that this inclusion/exclusion pattern appears to have been followed by all the reprints of the storyline going right back to the mid 1980s series The Life of Captain Marvel.

This storyline presents with a truly cosmic epic with a well developed backstory and characters. Over the course of these issues Captain Marvel battles first with Thanos's recruits such as the Super Skrull and the Controller, before eventually taking on the Titan himself. We get a broad scope reminiscent of Greek epics as we learn the history of the civilisation on Titan from its founding by A'Lars, brother of Zeus, under the name of Mentor, through to Thanos's rise, recruitment of an army and conquest of the moon and then sweeping outwards. We learn of how steps have been taken to stop them but they are not enough. And we see the effects as Thanos turns his attention to Earth in pursuit of the Cosmic Cube to further his ends. The Cube offers immense power but its ramifications aren't explored too much beyond a notable 35 panel page in which Drax is subjected to a reality warping experience. Captain Marvel steadily steps up to the point where his heroism allows him to triumph.

We get many new characters who have gone on to perform significant roles through the Marvel Universe and beyond into the films. There's Thanos himself, his brother Eros (later to use the alias "Starfox"), their father Mentor, Isaac the super-computer and Drax the Destroyer. Each is carefully sketched out as a distinctive being who advances the story in their own way. And there are the more cosmic entities. The mighty Kronos is introduced though like Eros he bears limited resemblance to the character from Greek mythology. From afar he has created Drax the Destroyer out of Moondragon's dead father. Even more mysterious is Eon, a blob that appears to be a hybrid of two separate entities and which summons Mar-Vell to transform him from soldier to cosmic protector. And then there's Death, a silent skeletal female figure in a robe who appears at Thanos's side. There are some status quo changes as well, with Benjamin Savannah killed off at the start but more substantial is Mar-Vell's transformation under the guidance of Eon. Now an even more powerful cosmic being with "cosmic awareness" of what is happening in the universe he bursts forward with a new light stream tail of photon energy. Unfortunately the other main visual change is his hair turning from silver to blond, a change that is impossible to notice in a black and white reprint. And it's my main irritation with an otherwise fantastic storyline that we get yet another change in the main character's powers. It seems it may be impossible for any intellectual property protection to resist constant tinkering.

Issue #34 is probably the best known single issue in this volume, featuring Captain Marvel taking on new villain Nitro to stop him stealing an experimental nerve gas with consequences that would be returned to in later years. Nitro is a villain with an interesting power, that of being able to blow himself up and then reconstitute himself. I suspect that in the 1970s it was possible to present a living bomb as a character without the wider connotations of suicide bombers (and it still was over a decade later when one of the last of the original Masters of the Universe toys was Blast-Attak, with very much the same character basis) but nowadays it would be much more daring to create such a being.

Also a sign of the times is the drug use on the music scene. Rick's new singing partner Rachel "Dandy" Dandridge gives him a capsule that she jokingly claims contains "Vitamin C". When Rick takes it in the Negative Zone, it causes him to hallucinate and through the mind link it also affects Captain Marvel. However this affects a process whereby their minds have been converging. Rick has previously discovered the ability to control Mar-Vell's body when the latter is unconscious and the two are finding themselves ever more drawn together with the implication they may be merging. The drug taking seems to have the effect of empowering them to ultimately separate and merge at their own choosing. Again it's highly doubtful such a cause would be used today. Equally brushed over more than would be the case today is a scene where, in a brief guest appearance, the Wasp tampers with the Living Laser's equipment resulting in his weaponry killing him. Some of these ideas were clearly slipping past during one of Marvel editorial's most turbulent periods.

However out of that turbulence comes another epic as Captain Marvel battles elements of the Kree across multiple worlds, culminating in a showdown on the Kree homeworld with the Supreme Intelligence who has been manipulating things all along. During the course of the epic Mar-Vell and Rick briefly go their separate ways but reunite after Rick discovers his music act is out of touch with modern audience expectations. Both men find their powers developing thanks to the Nega bands with each learning from the other about how to use the powers in new and imaginative ways. The two are finally separated but able to reunite when needs be, allowing them to more easily travel through space and enhance their fighting skills. Towards the end their minds are on the brink of merger, resulting in a showdown to re-establish their separate egos. Against this personal conflict comes an array of adventures, ranging from confrontations on Earth with agents of the "Lunatic Legion" such as Nitro and the Living Laser to a showdown on the Moon with the Legion revealed as blue Kree racists led by old foe Zarek in search of purity. There's a trip to the Watcher's homeworld, battles with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and a more personalised conflict with a creature possessing the body of Una, Mar-Vell's former romantic interest. A more whimsical tale takes Mar-Vell and Rick to a plant very like the American Old West where they have a showdown with the Stranger - but all is not what it seems. There's a return appearance by an angry Destroyer, now angry that his purpose in life has been destroyed by Captain Marvel. Then there's a world with a war between cyborgs and giant Kree robots called Null-trons, before the climax with the Supreme Intelligence. The later parts see first Rick and then Mar-Vell aided by a mysterious woman known only as Fawn, a manifestation of Rick's mental powers. This is a story with a big vision and scope, providing one of the earliest intergalactic Marvel epics, but it's also a quite personal tale about the relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick, showing how intertwined the two are and how each benefits the other.

Overall this volume shows some of the telltale signs of the character's origin as a trademark protection, with continuing changes to the powers and status quo, but by the second half of the volume it feels like actual character development rather than an endless search to find something that will work to keep the trademark in use. But beyond that there's finally a clear long-term idea as to what this series is about and it survives a change of writer. Rather than an alien operating amongst humans or a detached observer of humanity we get a strong series on a cosmic scale, with a mixture of menaces that threaten the whole universe and those that focus upon Marvel himself. The Thanos epic is the peak of the volume, even with the needless inclusion of the Marvel Feature issue, and shows a self-confidence that had been lacking for years. After that there are some questionable moments where the series shows its age with accidental killing of villains without consequences, drug taking and suicide bombers all being elements that would be unlikely to appear today. Whilst the second epic may ramble a little overall it still has breadth and imagination, putting the characters through a critical personal journey. The result is a series finally on the up and more than justifying its existence to its readers rather than just intellectual property lawyers. This volume is definitely the series at its highest so far.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2 is another example of the anthology Essential, this time collecting tales of a diverse set of characters and presenting them by character instead of chronology. We get the adventures of the Living Mummy, Brother Voodoo, Gabriel the Devil-Hunter, Golem, Mordred the Mystic and the Scarecrow. These come from Supernatural Thrillers #5 & #7-15, Strange Tales #169-174 & #176-177, Tales of the Zombie #2, #6 & #10, Marvel Team-Up #24, Haunt of Horror #2-5, Monsters Unleashed #11, Marvel Two-in-One #11, #18 & #33, Marvel Chillers #1-2, Dead of Night #11 and Marvel Spotlight #26. That's a lot of issues with a lot of characters and lots of creators so given the anthology nature of this volume I'll list the creators for each character individually. And there are labels posts for characters and creators 1 and 2.

The volume kicks off with the Living Mummy from Supernatural Thrillers #5 & 7-15. The writing is initially by Steve Gerber and then Tony Isabella before being finished off by John Warner, with plot contributions by Len Wein and Val Mayerik. Mayerik is the main artist on the feature with individual issues drawn by Rich Buckler and Tom Sutton. Supernatural Thrillers had initially adapted various famous horror stories but also ran a one-off original piece featuring an immortal mummy and overall only lasted six issues. It was then revived nearly a year later starring the Mummy with the cover of issue #7 proclaiming that he was back by popular demand. However it's very clear that there was no initial plan for the character who is originally introduced mainly in Egypt (although the opening scene is in the Gaza Strip, then under Israeli occupation) but then transported to New York when the feature becomes ongoing, only to almost immediately be returned to Egypt for the rest of the run. One side effect is that any plan to have guest appearances by the wider Marvel universe is set aside, bar a single appearance by the Living Pharaoh.

However there's a strong sense of history to the lead, established upfront as we learn he was N'Kantu, the chieftain of an African tribe known as the Swarili in ancient times. They were conquered and enslaved by the Egyptians under forgotten Pharaoh Aram-Set, but N'Kantu led a rebellion that freed the slaves and killed N'Kantu. However he was captured by the priest Nephrus who used a potion to paralyse him and then performed a transfusion that replaced his blood with a fluid that made him immortal. N'Kantu then spent three thousand years entombed until the paralysing potion wore off. This origin is quite dark for the time but gives a strong sense of history and tragedy as N'Kantu slowly comes to terms with being exiled from his home by the millenniums and completely unable to return home. In the present day he is drawn to Egyptologist Alexi Skarab, a descendent of Nephrus, who shares a psychic bond with the mummy enabling the two to communicate. Skarab, his two assistants, Janice Carr and Ron McAllister, and thieves Dan "the Asp" Harper and Miles Olddan form a small supporting cast for an epic involving a search for and struggle over a Ruby Scarab of immense power sought by the Elementals - four beings Magnum, Zephyr, Hellfire and Hydron with powers based on earth, air, fire and water respectively. Zephyr initially takes control of the Mummy to find the Scarab but when N'Kantu breaks free the other Elementals turn on her, leading to a prolonged struggle in which modern day Egypt is conquered. It's easy to see the roots of this story - the lead character seems to have been inspired by the contemporary fad for zombies since the end result is once again a living corpse wandering the Earth, unable to communicate substantially with other people and for a period being controlled by the magic of a woman. However the main elements are drawn from Egyptian history and mythology, with some brief acknowledgement of the modern day political turmoil in the Middle East, and the result is a good little epic that doesn't feel too forced or take the lead out of his natural environment. N'Kantu may be one of many horror characters who is unable to converse with those around him but he is able to think, understand and recall and the result is a noble being both in flashbacks and the present day.

Next we have the tales of Brother Voodoo (who gets the cover) from Strange Tales #169-173, Tales of the Zombie #6 & #10 plus an introductory text feature from issue #2, and Marvel Team-Up #24. The Strange Tales and Marvel Team-Up issues are all written by Len Wein who also plots the first Tales of the Zombie story which is scripted by Doug Moench who writes the second. The art on Strange Tales and the first Tales of the Zombie is by Gene Colan, the second by Tony DeZuniga and the Marvel Team-Up by Jim Mooney. The introduction feature is written by Tony Isabella and drawn by John Romita. It's clear Marvel had big hopes for this series, launching it in a monthly series and even reviving the "Strange Tales" name. (Though it's slightly odd to see "Fantastic First Issue!" on issue #169.) But the insurance policy of being able to keep the title and replace the strip proved wise as by issue #171 it was bimonthly and then Brother Voodoo was dropped after only five issues. It's possible the strip ended prematurely for non-sales reasons. Issue #173 ends on a cliffhanger with a caption stating that the story will be concluded in Tales of the Zombie and its place here will be taken by the Man-Wolf. As we'll see the slot was in fact filled by the Golem, which was so rushed issue #175 had to be a general reprint issue and the Man-Wolf instead appeared in Creatures on the Loose. The fact the Brother Voodoo story was concluded in a magazine suggests that there were problems with the Comics Code Authority over the portrayal of some of the voodoo elements in the series.

When I first encountered Brother Voodoo in the pages of Marvel Team-Up I did a double take as the character seemed rather stereotyped. His solo adventures show a more rounded character with a determination to avoid stock tropes so we get Jericho Drumm, a psychiatrist, who returns to Haiti and has to take on the role of his dead brother Daniel - with Daniel's spirit co-inhabiting him. Brother Voodoo shows some efforts to get away from being a black Doctor Strange - he may have a manservant, Bambu, and a mansion but he's a much more physical character. He faces a string of foes, all voodoo inspired but with some superhero twists, including a man claiming to be Damballah the Serpent God who has killed Daniel, and another impersonating Baron Samedi but actually an agent working with AIM. Baron Samedi is an understandably popular villain in voodoo fiction but to find him with a secret layer beneath a cemetery on a Caribbean island just a few months after the release of Live and Let Die does show a degree of unoriginality. A fight with the Cult of Dark Lord introduces potential romantic interest Loralee Tate, a nurse, and her father, local police chief Samuel Tate, but once again the foe is illusionary with the "Black Talon" another man in a suit, here being manipulated by his mother, Mama Limbo. The final solo story is more overtly magical, with Dramabu the Death-Lord raising the dead as "zuvembies" on Haiti, including Brother Voodoo's mentor, Papa Jambo. The team-up with Spider-Man brings a different twist on foe types as they tackle Moondog the Malicious, a spirit currently possessing the body of an accountant.

Overall this strip is a bit hit and miss. It would be churlish to pick on Brother Voodoo for being a product of riding on the latest cultural fad even though this one is now more forgotten than most. And there's a clear attempt to establish a status quo for ongoing adventures in and around New Orleans but it never quite gets there. The problem is there are a lot of overt voodoo concepts in these tales, whether set in Haiti or New Orleans or even a pursuit to New York, and at times it can be a little hard to following if terms like "loa" and "houngan" aren't fully explained - the Marvel Team-Up does a good job at this but the solo stories less so. Otherwise the stories feel rather run of the mill and not as spectacular as they were built up to be.

Third up in this volume is Gabriel the Devil-Hunter from Haunt of Horror #2-5 and Monsters Unleashed #11. Everything is written by Dough Moench with the art handled by Billy Graham, Pablos Marcos and Sonny Trinidad. This is another character whose creation rode the wave of a fad - in this case The Exorcist movie. Information about Gabriel is only slowly revealed and it's not even clear if that is his first or last name. The final story - presumably rescued when the original series was cancelled - fleshes out the background of how a scholar found his wife Andrea dead, seemingly at her own hand, and turned to the priesthood only to be subject to a possession but he drove the demon out with force of will, burning a crucifix mark onto his own chest. Now working as an exorcist from the thirteenth floor of the Empire State Building and accompanied by his mysterious assistant Desaida, Gabriel faces a succession of possessions and drives out the demons, with repeated signs this is part of a greater struggle as the demons know Gabriel. The Devil-Hunter is no pure priest, having turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church and at times turns to drink. Desaida is another source of mystery until it's revealed she is possessed by the spirit of Andrea. At the end Andrea's death certificate spontaneously combusts and Gabriel accepts Desaida as his wife. All in all this is a rather slight series, with the mysterious elements cleared up rapidly when Marvel's black and white horror magazines started ending in close succession though it's good to see a creator getting a chance to control the revelations in time. The settings are mixed with exorcisms in homes, churches, cemeteries and even at Stonehenge (although Sonny Trinidad clearly had no idea what it looks like). But the whole genre just isn't one that appeals much and this strip doesn't reach too well beyond it.

The fourth lead character is the Golem from Strange Tales #174 & #176-177 and Marvel Two-in-One #11. The first Strange Tales issue is written by Len Wein and drawn by John Buscema, and the other two are by Mike Friedrich and Tony DeZuniga with the Marvel Two-in-One by Bill Mantlo and Bob Brown. The Golem is a creature taken from Jewish folklore with this particular representative being the one created by Judah Loew Ben Bezalel in 16th century Prague. The stone monster saved many people from oppression and tyranny before going immobile in the desert. In the present day he is rediscovered by archaeologist Abraham Adamson, his nephew Jason, niece Rebecca and Rebecca's fiancé Wayne Logan. When a group of bandits steal from the campaign, killing Abraham in the process, the Goldman comes to life, seemingly animated by Abraham's spirit. The rest of the strip sees the Golem accompanying the three survivors back to New York, saving them from danger and facing off a series of demons sent by Kaballa the Unclean who desires the Golem's power. The strip soon came to an end with the story becoming one of many to be wrapped up in a team-up with the Thing. All in all there's not much to this strip or character at all. There's an attempt to flesh out the mythology of the stone creatures and show how they can be killed, but the main character has neither the ability to converse with others nor the stature and charisma of other silent monsters and so isn't that interesting. Nor are the supporting cast. This leaves the piece as a curiosity that fortunately doesn't outstay it's welcome.

The penultimate strip in the volume is Mordred the Mystic from Marvel Chillers #1-2 and Marvel Two-in-One #33. The two Marvel Chillers issues are written by Bill Mantlo and the sole Marvel Two-in-One by Marv Wolfman with art by Yong Montano & Ed Hannigan, Sonny Trinidad & John Byrne and Ron Wilson respectively. This is a very slight series, telling how a sorcerer’s apprentice at the time of Camelot had rejected being assigned to the unseen Merlin, who had reportedly turned bad, and instead sought dark magic to overthrow the wizard. However it threw him into suspended animation until found in the twentieth century. The rest of the series is a mixture of fights with various magic and demonic beings including the strange "the Other" and four representatives of the elements, and a culture clash battle with a stereotyped cliché pretending to be the Metropolitan police in some Hollywood executive's idea of London. There's clear potential for this character, and also a sub-plot laid of a romantic triangle involving him and the two archaeologists who found him, but the strip is over before it's really begun and the practical implementation is nothing to write home about. Yong Monano's art is particularly fine though, with the lengthy flashback to the days of Camelot having a real olde worlde feel. The story is nominally wrapped up in Marvel Two-in-One in what is also the conclusion of the first Spider-Woman epic, but all we get is a battle with the elemental demons sent by the wicked Merlin rather than an actual showdown.

The final character highlighted is the Scarecrow from Dead of Night #11, Marvel Spotlight #26 and Marvel Two-in-One #18. The first two are written by Scott Edelman and the third by Bill Mantlo with Edelman co-plotting. The art on the three issues is by Rico Rival, Ruben Yandoc and Ron Wilson respectively. The letters page for Dead of Night #11 is reproduced and it's an essay by Scott Edelman outlining early ideas for the character and the various titles he was considered for. This is frankly a highly confusing series with key mysteries never resolved. The Scarecrow seems to inhabit a painting and comes to life when attempts are made to steal said painting by agents of the demon Kalumai. The painting is obtained by collector Jess Duncan, with multiple hints of a connection between the Scarecrow and Duncan's brother Dave Monroe. Beyond that we have multiple fights, an attempt to sacrifice Duncan's romantic interest art critic Harmony Maxwell, and no actual origin. The Marvel Two-in-One issue reveals that the painting is an portal to a dimension where Kalumai is trapped with the Scarecrow as gatekeeper but the other questions are left unresolved and the painting seemingly destroyed. All in all this is easily the worst of the six different characters' appearances collected here but fortunately it doesn't outstay its welcome.

Of the different characters it's the Living Mummy which works the best, having a clearly defined character and soon finding a strong direction. The Brother Voodoo tales are so-so but the rest of the volume is really a demonstration as to why these characters never took off and I wonder how Marvel Two-in-One readers felt about that series being so often used to wrap-up such obscure properties. However the general concept of this book is a good idea. There have been many short-lived characters and series that are too short to collect in a standard continuous run edition and here is a way to rescue them. The idea could be carried forward to other features - there have probably been enough short-lived series and limited series featuring various Avengers that would allow for multiple volumes bringing them altogether. However it's unfortunate that the title "Essential Marvel Horror" had previously been used for what was really "Essential Children of Satan" as there's no real direct connection between the two volumes and separate titles would have been better, though this one is far more deserving of the general "Marvel Horror" label.

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2 - character labels

We have a volume with lots of lead characters so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2 - creator labels 1

We have a volume with a huge number of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2 - creator labels 2

We have a volume with a huge number of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 2

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 2 consists of issues #22-43 plus Giant-Size Werewolf #2-5 (issue #1 was under the title Giant-Size Creatures; it's not clear why "by Night" has been dropped from the title) and Marvel Premiere #28 which contains the first and only appearance of the Legion of Monsters. All the regular and Giant-Size issues are written by Doug Moench with the Marvel Premiere issue by Bill Mantlo. The regular issues are all drawn by Don Perlin who does some of the Giant-Sizes as well; others are by Virgil Redondo and Yong Montano. The Marvel Premiere issue is drawn by Frank Robbins.

Giant-Size Werewolf #3 brings a return visit to Transylvania to free Topaz who has been captured by a gypsy woman wielding magic and in the process face a mob of outraged villagers clutching torches and pitchforks so cliched that the captions actually comment on this. But in the process it's revealed that the woman is Jack's grandmother and all the confrontation and hate stems from the reaction to the curse first visited upon Jack's father. Jack only discovers the woman's identity as she lies dying, having realised who he is and that he is not responsible for all the anger and hatred that has flowed from the werewolf curse. The issue also tries to tidy up the confusion of the multiple family castles - one is apparently a summer home that was left in Transylvania and the other a winter home transplanted to the States.

The other Giant-Size issues are fairly inconsequential to the regular series. Two of them are standard team-up issues, bringing the Werewolf into conflict with first the Monster of Frankenstein and then with Morbius the Living Vampire. After the already crossed-over-with Dracula these two are the most natural to appear with the Werewolf. The Frankenstein Monster is searching for a real body and succumbs to the claims of a Satanic cult, only to wind up turning on them when he realises the cult are using the sacrifice of the Werewolf to bring forth the spirit of Satan in the Monster's body. The Morbius story is a rare appearance by the Living Vampire that actually works, telling the tragic tale of how he found a formula that could cure him only to lose the only copy in a fight with the Werewolf. The series rounds out with a past set story as Jack and Buck try to obtain help from a demonologist only to get caught up in a struggle on another world. In general these tales are as non-intrusive as possible and sensibly placed but the final Giant-Size is placed between issues #31 & #32 that not only have a direct continuation of story between them but also come at a critical stage in Jack and Buck's friendship. It feels odd to jump from the events of issue #31 to a fairly run of the mill adventure even though Jack's narration is at pains to point out that this happened some months back. But overall this isn't a terribly great set of Giant-Size issues and there's no great sense of loss at the line coming to an end.
Dear Bill, I have an idea. Let's capitalise on the popularity of the monster books by teaming them up. Can you put together an issue combining Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, the Werewolf and Morbius? We'll stick it in one of try-out books and see how it goes. Cheers, Marv.
Dear Marv, This isn't a workable idea at all. Half the monsters can't even talk, one's based in Los Angeles while another is in Florida, most of them are violent loners who get into pointless fights whenever they have or are a guest star, and only Ghost Rider comes close to being someone who would hang around in a team for the common good and even then we're stretching things to include him in the Champions. Still you're the editor and what the editor wants he gets. Here's an issue that brings the four of them together and shows why they just won't work as a team. Yours, Bill.
I have no idea if an exchange like that ever took place, or whether the idea came from the editor, writer or even the sales department, or even if Marv Wolfman was the editor at the point of commissioning (as a try-out book, Marvel Premiere stories could easily sit around for months or even years on end to be used as and when there was a space available). But the Legion of Monsters feels like a concept produced on order from someone who didn't think through the fundamentals and the issue is pushing back to show why this can never work as a regular series. With only eighteen pages there isn't room to show all the problems and so how the Man-Thing makes it all the way from the Florida swamps to downtown Los Angeles must remain one of those questions we just weren't meant to ask. Otherwise this is a rather dull tale of a lost civilisation returning with no consideration for those who have built over their old home's location in the meantime. The powerful Starseed seeks a paradise Earth but the hostility on the monsters leads to a fight that fatally wounds him. There's no attempt to even give a stock "Think of the good we could achieve by working together" speech and the monsters all go their separate ways, showing why the Legion of Monsters could never work. It's surprising that this issue was included here when it isn't included in the Essential Ghost Rider volumes, given that he rather than the Werewolf is the lead character. (For that matter it's also not in the Essential Man-Thing volumes.) This may be down to timing and a lack of foresight as this issue came out during the run covered by Essential Ghost Rider volume 1 but it really doesn't feel like a Werewolf story and above all others and could easily have been left out from here.

Of the regular issues in this volume the best known are probably #32 & #33 which introduce Moon Knight, here working as a mercenary on behalf of the unimaginatively named organisation called "the Committee". On the face of it a moon themed villain is a natural foe for a man suffering from the werewolf curse, and Moon Knight's use of silver on his costume means that the fight between the two of them feels like a suitably level pitch. But the storyline takes a twist when Moon Knight realises the Werewolf's inner innocence compared to his corrupt paymasters and turns on them. The character's depiction here will surprise those who are only familiar with his later adventures and indeed an awkward retcon had to be introduced to explain away his origins and actions shown here. At this stage he's just a mercenary for hire with a supportive helicopter pilot and the costume is developed entirely by the Committee for the purpose of handling the Werewolf. It's easy to see why this had to be changed to open the character out for his own adventures but it also means this series is deprived of a strong and resourceful foe who proves able to capture the Werewolf and hold him past dawn. Still the Werewolf's villain's gallery's loss is herodom's gain and an illusion of Moon Knight appears in  Belaric Marcosa's house as projections of the Werewolf's three greatest foes. The other two are the Hangman, who makes a brief reappearance in the flesh early on, and new foe Doctor Glitternight, a magician who initially tries to control Topaz through stealing her soul and subsequently turns out to be the exiled member of a quintet all-powerful beings from another dimension. One-off foes include Atlas, an actor out for revenge after his face was burnt on set, DePrayve, a scientist whose experiments on controlling human aggression turn him into a modern day Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Soul-Beast, a monster created by Doctor Glitternight out of Topaz's soul.

The volume sees the tackling head on two of the most basic questions of the series. Early on Lissa's eighteenth birthday approaches, sparking the fear that she too has inherited the curse and an unsuccessful search for ways to prevent her ever changing. To make matters worse Doctor Glitternight's interference means that on her first night she transforms into an even fiercer monster - a Were-Demon. However Taboo's soul intervenes and sacrifices its remaining life essence to free her, curing her of the curse in the process. It was probably inevitable to avoid having two werewolves regularly running about but it's a little too neat a solution for my liking. Meanwhile Buck Cowan starts to get some happiness when he meets single mother Elaine Marston and her daughter buttons. Unfortunately a skiing holiday turns to tragedy when Buttons wanders out into the snow near to where Jack has transformed to the Werewolf. Buck comes to her rescue, risking his own life to protect the child despite a fight that both he and Jack have long feared. Buck is nearly killed and only recovers with the help of a spirit, and is still confined to a wheelchair at the end of the volume. Despite this he forgives Jack.

As part of the search for a cure for Buck's near death state, Jack, Topaz, Lissa and Elaine venture into the haunted house once inhabited by soul eater Belaric Marcosa and spend several issues fighting against the spirits and madness there in a tale of full on horror where friends find themselves literally at each others' throats and it becomes impossible to know what is real and not. At the time spread over multiple months, made worse by the series going bimonthly midway through, this storyline must have seemed a drag and the ending not quite the series climax it was briefly billed as, but when read altogether it hold up well and fits in with the dark magic themes of the series.

The last issues of the series show panic buttons being hit with the book going bimonthly and taking a new direction with guest-stars. Initially it seems as though issue #37 was going to serve as a conclusion but instead the series went on for another six issues in a team-up with Brother Voodoo. A very long running subplot involving Raymond Coker's affairs in Haiti, and Lieutenant Northrup's investigations pursuing him, is resolved in a battle with Glitternight and his "zuvembies". It's a dramatic conflict on an interdimensional basis but it feels well outside the norm for the series. There are some good individual moments - my favour one pokes fun at the inability to say "zombie" in a Comics Code approved book as Jack asks what is a "zuvembie" and upon being told by Brother Voodoo the reply is "You mean they're zo--" before an interruption prevents the full word coming out - but overall this doesn't feel like a natural Werewolf story. It's a pity because this tale finally sees both the end of Northrup's pursuit of the Werewolf, having seen Jack as a hero, and Jack get control over the transformations, allowing him to control his lycanthropic form.

The final two issues see Jack temporarily in New York where he teams up with Iron Man against the Masked Marauder and his latest creation, the Tri-Animan, a robot that combines the abilities of a gorilla, an alligator and a cheetah. It's not the most spectacular point for the series to suddenly be cut off at, but it presumably shows the intended new direction of making the Werewolf a more conventional superhero with Jack in full control now. This may have been deemed necessary to overcome a sales slump as the initial fad passed, but it's not a direction I care much for. In any case it was too little, too late as the series suddenly ended. A subplot is left dangling involving a mysterious being breaking into Buck's house and kidnapping him with a caption added at the bottom of the page for this edition stating that the plot is resolved in Essential Spider-Woman volume 1. It's nice to have an actual pointer but it's a forewarning that the volume itself is going to end unsatisfactorily.

Overall this volume is a letdown after the first. There's a few too many stories that drag on for longer than they should and a move away from the basic concept. There are some good moments and a few good storylines but a lot of this is turgid. There's also a few too many attempts to team-up one of the ultimate loner characters with others but fortunately the Marvel Premiere story proved to be the Legion of Monsters' sole appearance. All in all this is not one to remember.
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