Friday, 23 January 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 3

Essential X-Factor volume 3 contains issues #36 to #50 & Annual #3 plus Uncanny X-Men #242 & #243 which form part of the "Inferno" crossover. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Mister Sinister and Madelyne Prior. All the X-Factor issues are written by Louise Simonson bar one that is both written and drawn by Kieron Dwyer whilst Chris Claremont writes the Uncanny X-Men issues. The art is by a mixture of Walter Simonson, Arthur Adams, and Paul Smith with individual issues by Dwyer, Rob Liefeld, Rich Buckler and Terry Shoemaker, who also does the main story in the annual. A back up in the annual is drawn by Tom Artis. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Marc Silvestri.

The first item in this collection is the annual and its inclusion here is a bit of a mess. It features the Beast before his furry form returned, and was originally released between issues #30 & #31. It probably should have been included in the previous volume but it's not immediately obvious where it should have been placed; a sign of the problems annuals often bring even when, as here, they're scripted by the series's regular writer. The lead story is the first part of "The Evolutionary War", a story that ran in just about all the Marvel annuals in 1988. However it's fairly easy to read this part in isolation from the rest with the separate strands of X-Factor battling agents of the High Evolutionary called the Purifiers who seek to exterminate the Subterranean race as part of cleansing the Earth before accelerated evolution whilst the Evolutionary himself is attacked by Apocalypse with a battle over their different approaches of intelligent design against natural selection as the way forward for the human race. To be frank this is a so-so X-Factor story but a very uninteresting start to a large and expensive crossover. The back up chapter detailing the history of the High Evolutionary has not been included but it's no real loss. What is included though is a short piece in which the various kids on Ship learn about the history of the X-Factor team from their earliest days in the X-Men through to their recent surge of popularity. With the exception of the Beast's form this little story comes at a very handy moment as it recaps some key points including Jean's replacement by the Phoenix and Scott's marriage to Jean's lookalike Madelyne Pryor. This is perfect timing for what comes next.

"Inferno" was the big Marvel crossover of late 1988 and X-Factor has a strong claim to be the primary title, having been building up the storylines over several issues and containing some of the key conflicts. But oddly the storyline can feel a little confused upon entering issue #36, partially because the build-up in the preceding three issues was included in volume 2, originally released almost three years earlier, but also because some of the storyline was set up in the X-Terminators limited series which isn't included here despite starring the youngsters X-Factor have rescued. Perhaps this is because X-Terminators leads more directly into New Mutants, with the former team soon merging into the latter. The two Uncanny X-Men issues plus four X-Factor issues had been previously reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 8 but some duplication with crossovers is unavoidable and here the Uncanny X-Men issues have been kept to the minimum of only those once the two teams actually meet up.

Once it gets past the general scenes of Manhattan being transformed by demons, the story reaches some of its main focuses. This is not some casual event crossover where some enemy comes from out of the blue only to get defeated and everything goes back to normal. Instead, there are several big developments and some long awaited moments. The biggest one is the first meeting between X-Factor and the X-Men, which now seems amazing considering X-Factor had by this stage been around for three years and this is no less than the third crossover between the mutant titles that both have taken part in. But the meeting isn't smooth as there's a lot of distrust between the two, in part because of X-Factor's historic role of posing as mutant hunters but also because of the presence of Scott's estranged wife Madelyne Prior, who has become the Goblin Queen.

This is very much the story of Scott and Jean and Madelyne as several years' worth of mysteries are finally addressed and further steps are taken to retroactively clean up some of the mess created when the series was launched. We now learn just what Madelyne is and how she has been just a gene substitute for Mr Sinister and a Jean substitute for Scott. The confrontation between husband and wife is ugly, with it becoming all too clear which woman Scott prefers. But this is not a popular choice with his brother Alex turning on him in fury. In real life many a divorce and/or custody case has seen the relatives of one partner/parent support the other and Alex's fury is believable as he hammers home how Scott has gone against his vows and abandoned his wife. For Jean there's a horror of once again having a replacement going mad with great power, and worse still the Phoenix force has made Madelyne even more a part of her than before. At the heart of all this is a child, called "Christopher" by his father and "Nathan" by his mother, who is to be sacrificed both for revenge on his father but also to create a bridge between Earth and the realm of Limbo.

The demon side of "Inferno" isn't as interesting, with the lead demon N'Astirh a fairly confused character though it's possible that much of his story is in parts of the crossover not included here. Nor is it too clear just what the realm of Limbo actually is, since the name has been used several times by Marvel and also has the connotations of the religious realm. All of this provides a backdrop and some nice visuals, as well as the return to the team of Warren, who adopts the name of Archangel in the epilogue issue.

But the real showdown is less about demons than about Scott's past as we discover just how much he has been manipulated over the years by Mr Sinister, right from his days in the orphanage. We get an explanation for just where Scott got his first ruby quartz spectacles that could contain his force beams but more pertinently how Madelyne was created and manipulated. Wisely the story doesn't directly retcon Scott leaving Madelyne as merely the manipulation of Mr Sinister, but he was responsible for her and Nathan Christopher's subsequent disappearance that prevented reconciliation. Instead Scott's redemption comes variously in saving his son from Madelyne and then in facing down Sinister in an act of catharsis. It's a dramatic conclusion that does its best to resolve some of the chaos and baggage caused by both Jean's death and return. The abandonment at the start of the series is simply too big a problem to resolve but otherwise there's a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Issue #40 is a minor milestone as the first ever Marvel work by Rob Liefeld. It may lack some of what would become his regular themes but it's got several features that have recurred in his work including awkward poses such as Cyclops appearing to have two left arms, the Beast walking at an angle where he's almost falling over, many characters doing strange things with their feet as though they're dancing instructors giving a frozen demonstration and numerous marks and lines on faces. Fortunately the main villain is one that it's hard to draw badly, as Nanny is just an egg with a voice and limbs. It's not the wildest piece of work but it's a style that's quite different from before and it's amazing that Liefeld went on to enjoy the sales and success that he did. He's far from the only reason the comics industry developed the way it did over the next several years (and I often feel that some of the criticisms of him are really proxies for dislike of industry developments and corporate decisions for which he was the easiest target) but it's an unfortunate development nonetheless.

"Inferno" may have forced itself into numerous other titles but the reverse is resisted here when it comes to "Acts of Vengeance" with issues #49 & #50 making it clear their primary purpose is to finish off the title's own "Judgement War" storyline and confining the crossover to two standalone pages in the former issue and a six page back up in the latter. This may be one of the earliest signs of "writing for the trade", and indeed I'm informed that the Acts of Vengeance Crossovers Omnibus edition only reprints these eight pages rather than the full issues, though here it's the crossover rather than the book's own plots that are confined to the easy to remove pages. It almost feels as though Apocalypse is expressing not only his own thoughts but those of an irritated Louise Simonson (though one could reasonably point out that she wrote all the core "Inferno" issues bar the Uncanny X-Men ones and that crossover had also intruded on an awful lot of titles). Apocalypse observes the events and comments on how some of the villains are bafflingly "out of character" and actually calls the whole thing an "absurdity" and "already a failure" as he rather bluntly declines an invitation to join the leadership of the villains' alliance. Looking at the basic premise of the crossover is probably best left to a review of a more central part of the event, but it's hard to deny that it requires some basic leaps in goals by villains. For a genocidal tyrant who seeks to advance the strongest in the human race to team up with a group including, amongst others, a New York crimelord would be a very strange move even though having its main villain in the alliance's leadership would have raised the profile of X-Factor as a series and couldn't have been more illogical than having a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal working together. Still the encounter means the Essential volume is bookended by Apocalypse engaged in both a physical and philosophical battle with the lead villain in a major crossover.

Nestled between "Inferno" and "Judgement War" is a curious two-parter which introduces Alchemy, a mutant created by the winner of a contest. As the name implies Alchemy has a Midas Touch and a curious group called Troll Associates who plan to use him to destroy the British economy by creating so much gold as to make it worthless and then return the country to the days of magic. It's odd to encounter traditional monsters engaged in economic warfare and the story is also bizarre for the way Jean insists on taking Christopher, a mere baby, on the mission with them despite the all too clear danger.

Midway through "Judgement War" the series confesses to missing its deadlines and runs a fill-in from file, complete with an extra page at the start to allow for a random flashback to completely unrelated events. We get a solo tale of Archangel as he reflects on how life is now so much more complicated and it's no longer so easy to tell good from evil, whilst a priest is running a home for young mutants but uses the "Children of Heaven" for street crime. It's a so-so piece, as most fill-ins are, but during the original publication it must have been frustrating to readers for such a long take to be stretched out even further by interruptions. (The cover dates can confuse as steps were taken to reduce them from four months ahead of publication to two, with a couple of issues cover dated "Mid" month to absorb the difference.)

As for "Judgement War" itself, there are some good ideas but the emphasis is all wrong and the storyline way too long. In the course of the story we learn the true origin of Ship and discover that the events of "Inferno" have left the personalities of both Madelyne and the Phoenix in Jean's mind. But these elements are very much side-shows in a tale of an unnamed planet full of mutants where a technologically advanced but culturally medieval society has settled into a rigid structure of castes including the Chosen, the Rejects and the Dualers, and those who reject it all, the Beginagains. X-Factor, Christopher and Ship are scattered across the various factions and find themselves caught in power struggles and burdening revolutions, whilst the Celestials are coming to judge whether or not the civilisation and world is worthy of continued existence. Frankly the planet's internal politics are boring and attempts to draw an analogy with the situation on Earth is limited. Of much more interest is the struggle within Jean as the Madelyne and Phoenix personalities struggle to assert themselves, whilst Jean gets a chance to atone for the Phoenix's greatest crime, yet this is underplayed. Overall this storyline feels stretched out of all proportion and probably could have been cut by at least two parts. This may not have resulted in an especially good "Acts of Vengeance" crossover but it would certainly have cut some of the tedium at the end of the volume.

This is another volume that mixes the strong and the weak. The best stuff is at the front with "Inferno" proving a strong resolution to a number of long running threads as well as a dramatic showdown in its own right. The rest of the volume is mixed with a number of odd moments but no especially awful moments even if the main storyline runs on for too long.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4 carries issues #64 to #83 and Annuals #5 & #6. All the issues are by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, credited on the actual issues as co-producing them and credited on the contents page with Lee as "Writer" and Kirby as "Co-Plotter & Penciller". The stability is further enhanced by everything bar a couple of back-up features in the first annual being inked by Joe Sinnott. Bonus material consists of several reproductions of art boards, mainly from issue #66, showing Kirby's margin notes for Lee. There's also an early version of the cover for issue #65.

By this stage the series has firmly settled into a clear pattern, though this volume shows that the complete status quo is not set in stone and developments for the characters can and do happen rather than sinking into a lazy inertia of just rehashing all that has come before. There's also a continuation in adding elements to the series's mythology as the Four's adventures continue to reveal new worlds, both in outer and inner space, and encounter new beings. The creative streak doesn't let up but there are also attempts to consolidate the existing extended character base and prepare some of them for their own series.

Annual #5 feels less like a special adventure of the Fantastic Four and more of a try-out for several other characters as the main focus is on the Inhumans and the Black Panther as they team up to battle new villain the Psycho-Man, with some help from Johnny and Ben but Reed and the just announced pregnant Sue stay behind. Adding to the Inhumans' exposure, they also dominate the gallery of pin-ups. The annual also contains a short Silver Surfer solo adventure plus a brief comedy piece showing Lee and Kirby larking around in the office as they try to come up with ideas for plots. With all three properties getting greater exposure in the near future, whether in solo series, back-ups in another title or just as a member of the Avengers, it's difficult to deny the annual was a success as a try-out piece but as a Fantastic Four tale it's severely lacking, particularly as it was the big special for the year.

Fortunately there's a return to form with annual #6 as it goes back to the core characters, with Reed, Ben and Johnny undertaking a desperate quest into the Negative Zone to find the thing necessary to save both Sue and the baby as she approaches labour. It's the first appearance of Annihilus and for once the story doesn't simply end with the obtaining of the item - in this case his cosmic control rod - but there's then a desperate race to shake off their pursuers and get out of the Negative Zone. The end of the story sees the birth of a son, later to be named Franklin, and the whole issue feels like a special occasion for the team and deserving of an extra large issue on a par with Sue and Reed's wedding in an earlier annual.

It is now impossible to discuss the birth of any child to the regulars in a comic without addressing the great debate about whether or not this damages the characters for the long run by making them seem "aged" and "difficult to relate to". By the logic of the naysayers the birth of Franklin would constitute a point at which the series becomes too remote from its readers. Frankly this approach to the Four is total nonsense. Right from the outset we've had not so much a team as a genuine family with loyalty and affection for one another mixed in with dysfunctionality. Reed has always been the mature father figure of the team and Sue has always long combined youth and vigour with a maternal approach to the others. That she is Johnny's older sister rather than his mother makes no real difference. For Reed and Sue to have a child is simply an extension of the existing family structure and as long as there are ways to combine parental responsibilities with work then it makes no difference. When you're reading the adventures of a scientist who excels at everything and has a rubber body to boot, a woman who can turn invisible and project forcefields, a teenager who can set his body on fire without hurting himself and a man trapped in the form of a rock monster, there's already a bit of suspension of disbelief. The idea that the birth of a child can damage the title and is a make or break affair for the audience is clearly ludicrous. In the long term there's the question of just how fast Franklin can be allowed to grow but there are any number of ways a fantasy series can handle this should it become a problem.

Where the pregnancy and birth does have a notable impact is in sidelining Sue even more than usual, with Reed becoming ever more protective and refusing to take her on journeys at times. Although there is concern for the baby it also plays into the prevalent sexism at the time. It's not until issue #81, after Franklin has been born, that the logical solution is found with Crystal stepping in to take Sue's place for the time being. She has to prove herself first but more than does so in battle with the Wizard. It's the first time there's been any change in the membership of the Four and there's a risk that such an approach will eventually lead to the group being treated as a team with a revolving door membership rather than a family with clear personal bonds between them. But Crystal has been hanging around the Baxter Building for pretty much the entire volume and is in a strong relationship with Johnny so she feels the natural choice to stand in for Sue. However it's a pity that before this issue she has been sidelined much of the time, rarely contributing to action or showing what she's made of.

More generally the series maintains its creative streak but it does so in some surprising ways. Issues #64 & #65 introduce the Kree, but instead of a visit to a grand empire or an encounter with part of an invasion force we instead meet them via a giant robotic soldier that has long been buried on Earth to monitor the situation but it has lost all contact with its army, like the real-life Japanese soldiers who stayed active on Pacific islands decades after the end of the Second World War. But the Kree empire is still around and the Four's defeat of the sentry attracts the Kree law enforcement officer Ronan the Accuser, with the Supreme Intelligence also making a first appearance. This is an odd way to introduce what would go on to be one of the main intergalactic powers in the Marvel universe but it also feels somewhat appropriate for a team of adventurers to stumble across one of the empire's outstretched tentacles instead of finding the core homeworld in all its glory.

Also introduced through a steady build-up is the artificial being known only as "Him" (later renamed as Adam Warlock), and his creators, the scientists grouped together as the Enclave. There's a real sense of build-up to the opening of the cocoon to reveal what the scientists hope will be the ultimate in human evolution. Somewhat undermining this is their inability to see Him due to the bright light and the odd solution of kidnapping Alicia in the hope that a blind sculptor will be able to get close enough to touch Him and then create a sculpture so the scientists can see what he looks like. Another artificial being to debut here is the Mad Thinker's android, which proves impossible to defeat outright and is instead exiled to the Negative Zone. But the real focus of these issues is upon Ben who has been brainwashed by the Thinker into turning on the Four. The Thinker's other artificial creation, the Android Man, also debuts in a Ben focused story as Reed once again finds a potion to cure him of being the Thing, but Ben discovers many, including Alicia, actually preferred his monstrous form and he undoes the transformation to save his friends even though he knows this change will be permanent. Less interesting an artificial being is the Tomazooma robot, impersonating a Native American living totem so that an oil company can drive Wyatt Wingfoot's people off their land.

Most of the stories are escapist adventure, rarely stopping to make overt comments about the state of the world. An exception comes when the Silver Surfer briefly decides that the problems humanity face could be overcome if they had to deal with a common enemy and sets out to be that enemy, embarking on a wave of destruction. It's a rare case of using the series as a mouthpiece for the creators and a forerunner of the commentary that would come in heavy doses in the Surfer's own series. But it also demonstrates the naivety of turning to quick fix solutions or outsiders imagining they can simply walk into a place with problems and put it all to rights. The Four and a missile eventually convince the Surfer of the error of his ways by showing there is good in humanity and that he was mad to even try and fix them all by his attacks on them. In his second appearance in this volume he returns to a more traditional role of conflict with Galactus as the world eater seeks to reclaim his herald, who in turn flees into the Microverse to escape and enjoy the freedom of a whole universe.

There are some odd moments in this run, particularly issue #73 which serves as the climax of a storyline in Daredevil in which Doctor Doom has briefly swapped bodies with Ol' Hornhead. Daredevil has now recovered his body but seeks help from the Fantastic Four who assume he's still Doom, leading to a battle with Spider-Man and Thor thrown in for good measure. The whole thing is resolved when Sue turns up and declares she's seen Doom live on television, as though a master of duplicate robots couldn't be in two places at once. All in all this is an odd issue that feels like an intruder on the series, crossing over with Daredevil for the sheer heck of it.

Despite the occasional misfire in general this volume shows the title still continuing to produce a strong mixture of fantastic and very personal adventures. Compared to earlier volumes there may not be many stories that have achieved a great deal of fame but nevertheless there is still a good level of creativity and development, both adding new elements to the series and enhancing the ones that have worked. We also get bold steps such as Sue's pregnancy and Crystal eventually taking her place on the team, showing that the status quo is not set in stone. This volume represents a series still at the top of its game and no let up in Lee and Kirby's astonishingly long run.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Essential Avengers volume 4

Essential Avengers volume 4 is made up of issues #69 to #97 plus the crossover issue Incredible Hulk #140. Everything is scripted by Roy Thomas with both parts of the Hulk crossover plotted by Harlan Ellison. Most of the art is by a mixture of Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Neal Adams with a couple off issues by Frank Giacoia. The Incredible Hulk issue is drawn by Herb Trimpe.

Throughout this volume there are a number of stories that seek to address contemporary social issues and it's not hard to see this as a response to the critical acclaim of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series which was running in the same period. But at times these tales can feel like they're missing the mark. There's a tale of Native Americans being driven from their land by a ruthless businessman that may tell a fast story with a non-cliched portrayal but it feels like a typical retread. There's another encounter with the Sons of the Serpent but once again punches are pulled with the revelation that the Supreme Serpent is in fact two television chat show hosts, one white and one black, who want just "power for ourselves". Would it have been so wrong to have an actual home grown racist as the leader and show the horror needs no outside manipulation? And the Black Panther, the hero-king who rules a proud African kingdom, is reduced to taking a day job as an inner city schoolteacher concerned with urban crime, as though black superheroes can do little else. But the most cringe-worthy moment comes in issue #83 with the Liberators. This all-female team, consisting of the Wasp, the Scarlet Witch, the Black Widow and Medusa, has been assembled by the Valkyrie to free women. But the Valkyrie turns out to be the Enchantress in disguise, trying to steal a device that will restore her full power. And what is her motivation for launching a war on men? She has been deserted by the Executioner who went off with another woman. And in the following issue she is now working with another man and all talk of a war on men has now been forgotten. So she's become a radical feminist for want of a man and then abandoned feminism upon finding one. How could this get any worse? And it's a pity as earlier on the Enchantress had highlighted some very real sexism and grievances when recruiting (although the backstory she gave to her Valkyrie identity is false). The intentions may be all well and good but the execution is repeatedly clumsy and so it's no surprise these issues have largely been forgotten.

Two other influences from DC can be seen with the appearance of other heroes, although one group is a far more obvious homage than the other. Early on the Avengers are confronted by the villainous Squadron Sinister and it is easy to spot their origins as a copyright friendly pastiche of the Justice League of America, right down to the individual counterparts - Hyperion is Superman, Nighthawk is Batman, Dr Spectrum is Green Lantern and the Whizzer is the Flash. Later on issue #85 sees the Avengers visit a parallel world where the heroes are the Squadron Supreme. Shown here are the good versions of the four Sinister members alongside four further heroes who again are clear counterparts to Justice Leaguers - Lady Lark is Black Canary, Tom Thumb is the Atom, Hawkeye is Green Arrow and the American Eagle is Hawkman. This was no casual rip-off but one half of a deliberate crossover in the days before inter-company crossovers with the official versions of heroes were possible. (Over at DC at about the same time the Justice League of America encountered the Assemblers, a team equally made up of counterparts to the rival company's heroes, but this team has had a rather lower profile than the Squadron Supreme.) It's also appropriate to encounter a team of DC derived heroes in a parallel universe and it's an elegant way to meet fan demands decades before a direct Avengers/JLA crossover could be produced. However the identical names and appearances of the two Squadrons is just asking for trouble, as shown by the cover copy for issue #85 which proclaims the return of the Squadron Sinister but is actually the first appearance of the Squadron Supreme.

More surprising is the way issue #97 declares a whole load of Golden Age heroes to have been nothing but fictional characters depicted in comics. Again this is the same method previously reported used by DC (with the subsequent addition that the comics were based on real events in a parallel universe), but whereas the Distinguished Competition's use of that method predated any actual revivals, Marvel had by this stage already revived Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America and, albeit only briefly, the android Human Torch. It's therefore a surprise to find the Angel, Blazing Skull, the Fin, the Patriot and the original Vision confined to fiction within fiction and brought to life briefly by the mental powers of Rick Jones in issue #97. The surprise only grows when remembering that the writer is Roy Thomas, who could normally be found integrating the Golden Age heroes into modern continuity. Was this a case of editorial interference blocking an attempt to revive the original characters, as seems to have happened with the introduction of the modern Vision? Still whatever the rationale we get to enjoy the sight of several of Marvel's Golden Age heroes in battle with the Kree some years before the launch of the Invaders.

At 640 pages this is one of the longest of all Essential volumes and at the time it was first published it was the record holder. Consequently one could query the reasons for including the Incredible Hulk issue as although it (naturally) follows up on the Hulk after Avengers #88 it doesn't really feature the Avengers that much. It's probably better that we're left wondering why it was included rather than why it wasn't but overall this crossover is really just a Hulk story that happened to detour into the pages of the Avengers instead of a true meeting of the two titles. Both parts of the crossover are plotted by Harlan Ellison, and he gets named on both covers, but rather than some grand masterpiece from a big name science fiction writer lured over to comics, this instead feels like a piece of stunt casting, either to attract in science fiction fans or just to lend Ellison's credibility to comics. The result is a rather mundane Avengers fighting the monster called Psyklop who is seeking the power of first the Hulk and then the Dark Gods. It may feature the first time the Hulk visits Jarella's world, but as an Avengers story it's ultimately forgettable.

The same cannot be said for the final storyline in this volume which is the main reason for its length. Rather than end the volume on a cliffhanger (although there was a gap of only fifteen months before the next volume was published), we get the entirety of the Kree-Skrull War story from issues #89 through to #97, made even slightly longer by issue #93 being 34 pages long as part of Marvel's brief 1971 attempt to expand the page size and price of their comics before retreating to the regular size (though not quite the previous price). This is one of the first full-length epic stories that Marvel produced, with a wide range of settings and characters. We get guest appearances by not only the familiar Kree and Skrull figures such as Ronan the Accuser, the Supreme Intelligence and the Super Skrull, but also by obscure ones such as the Skrulls who impersonated the Fantastic Four way back when the aliens first appeared or the first robotic Kree sentry to visit Earth. We get the return of Rick Jones, who discovers how even a simple orphan carries within him the ultimate potential of humanity, and his alter ego Captain Marvel. There are battles with S.H.I.E.L.D., a trip to the Inhumans' Great Refuge to overthrow Maximus and restore Black Bolt, encounters with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and even a journey through the body of the Vision (although as this is in the extra long issue it feels suspiciously like gratuitous padding), before a climax in space in which aid comes from the mental powers held by all humans and Rick's memories of the old comics he enjoyed at his orphanage. There's also a dig at McCarthyism some two decades after the event in the form of H. Warren Craddock, head of the Alien Activities Commission. Was this just a really really late piece of satire or was it a more contemporary response to the presidency of Richard Nixon, who had first achieved national fame through his work on the Un-American Activities Commission? All in all this is a saga that sets out to combine disparate elements in a strong ongoing narrative that also carries some good character moments. Of particular note are the growing feelings between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, with the android's desperation to save her coming to the fore.

The rest of the volume may seem tame by comparison but there are further additions to the series character base. The only new recruit to the Avengers is the Black Knight but he's barely seen, a sign that the Avengers membership has grown to the point where it's getting out of hand. Some relief on numbers comes from Yellowjacket's decision to drop out of superheroing and focus on scientific research with the Wasp following him, whilst the Black Panther ultimately decides to return to Wakanda and take up ruling full time upon the death of his regent. Otherwise the cast of the Avengers is large and allows for a mix of line-ups in individual issues with nearly all the members seen so far appearing at one point or another. There's also a new hero introduced in the form of Red Wolf, accompanied by the wolf Lobo, but they only appear in a single story. As noted above there's a sort of first appearance by the Valkyrie as a disguise by the Enchantress but the name and appearance of the disguise have gone on to greater things with the Defenders. The only notable supporting character to be introduced is Monica Lynne, who moves from a singing career to become a social worker before accompanying the Black Panther to Wakanda.

The series continues to add villains with several making their first appearances in these pages. In the immediate term the big introduction is the full Zodiac cartel, following on from the appearances of Scorpio in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now we get to meet Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. They appear multiple teams and even briefly conquer New York in their second appearance, making for a strong threat. Also recurring is Arkon, the ruler of another world who seeks both a way to restore his world's light and a mate, settling on the Scarlet Witch. Posing a threat of a very different kind is Cornelius van Lunt, one of the earliest examples in comics of a corporate criminal who uses both sharp business practices and hired crime to achieve his ends. There's also another group of existing foes brought together, this time under the name of the Lethal Legion and consisting of the Grim Reaper, the Man-Ape, Power Man, the Swordsman and the Living Laser. For the longer term the biggest arrival is the Grandmaster, who here challenges Kang to a game of living chess with the Avengers' as Kang's pieces. As a grand and all-powerful strategist the Grandmaster presents strong potential for the long run.

Overall this is a mixed run on the title with some unfortunate misfires in attempts to do social relevance tales balance by a very strong climax and some good additions to the mythology although the dismissive approach to some of the Golden Age characters is surprising. There are clear signs of character development, especially with the Vision, and plenty of action at all levels. It's easy to see why the Kree-Skrull War has become one of the most celebrated of all Avengers storylines and it makes for an excellent ending to the volume that more than justifies its extra large size.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Essential Thor volume 3

Essential Thor volume 3 reprints issues #137-166, bar an Inhumans back-up strip that ran in issue #146 to #152. Everything is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The stability is further enhanced by all but one issue being inked by Vince Colletta.

It's the format of the series which demonstrates the most variation. There's a final epic "Tales of Asgard" back-up feature which gives way to an Inhumans back-up strip then the second half of the volume sees issue length stories set in the present day. This is a series that has found a firm purpose as a mixture of Norse mythology and cosmic space adventure, with most time on Earth mainly serving as interludes between the big events. Thor is almost completely bereft of a human supporting cast with Jane Foster only making a single cameo to show she is getting on with her life and now has total amnesia of Thor. The other outstanding human element is also dealt with in a respectful way that confirms what the series has evolved into.

Throughout the volume Thor retains his identity of Donald Blake and his medical practice, although it's increasingly a sideshow. The two identities are by now clearly established as the same being but curiously when he's in the form of Thor he seems to lack Blake's medical knowledge. It's understandable that Thor's large hands and huge strength would not be suitable for delicate surgery, but less so that he would not know as much. And we finally get a resolution to the longest running uncertainty in the series so far. Issues #158 & #159 finally address the confusion about the main character - how can he be both the original Norse God of thunder with a life stretching back over many centuries and yet also a mortal man who discovered the hammer and gained the body and power of Thor? As he says, "If I am truly Thor... then who is the real Donald Blake? And if I am Don Blake... Where was Thor before I took his identity??" The first issue incorporates a reprint of Journey into Mystery #83, exposing the contradiction starkly as Donald Blake ponders the matter himself. (It also neglects to reproduce the original credits, a failing the Essential's contents page repeats) Then in issue #159 we get "The Answer at Last!" (the story's title) and learn how Donald Blake has been Thor all along. In order to teach his son humility, Odin had forcibly changed him into mortal form and given him both amnesia and a physical disability so that he would know weakness and learn "that any handicap can be endured... and overcome!" and sent him to Earth where he arrived in mortal & lame form on the first day of medical school with artificial memories. The hammer was disguised as a stick in a cave to await being found once humility had been learned.

This is one of the first overt retcons in Marvel history, with the original state of affairs addressed head on and explained away, rather than being simply ignored or flashbacks altering the original events. It may well have been driven by incessant questions on the letterspage and/or by the first generation of fans now working for Marvel, but in general it represents an elegant attempt to reconcile the original idea of a man acquiring the power of a being from mythology with the subsequent shift to depicting the adventures of the actual being. No retcon is ever perfect and this one doesn't explain how Blake could suddenly appear in adulthood with no recorded past, or why, if Thor is deemed to have learnt his lesson by now, he still has the Blake alter ego. But the biggest omission is any explanation as to why it took time for Thor's original personality and memory to come to the fore. Nevertheless the retcon has stuck to the point that any latter day readers are surprised to discover Thor and Blake were ever depicted any differently. I am aware of only one attempt to retcon this again, from the mid 1990s, and that was so convoluted and ultimately inconsequential that, as far as I am aware, it has been generally ignored and forgotten about every since the writer in question left the series. (If you don't know the details it's probably best to keep it that way.) But here we get Lee and Kirby putting almost a finishing touch on the character's background, overcoming the confusion from the earliest days of the series when they weren't in full control of it.

Thor's identity may have been cleared up but he retains his medical practice and loyalty to Earth, going so far as to defy an order from Odin to return to Asgard. At this stage Odin is acting somewhat out of character, being more power obsessed and angry than normal, and he opts to punish Thor once more by stripping him of all power bar his strength. The same subsequently happens to Loki, Sif and Balder. The power is eventually restored but in the meantime we see Thor trying to survive on his wits, unable to even revert to the form of Blake, and eventually taking a job with the Circus of Crime as a strongman who pretends to be none other than Thor himself. This leads to his being hypnotised into taking part in a robbery. This, even more than his Blake form, truly humbles Thor but also shows there is more to him than his powers though he does eventually regain them.

The series continues to thrust forwards with a good mix of existing and new elements. The early issues contain the final (for now) "Tales of Asgard" feature focusing on Hogun of the Warriors Three as his village is attacked by the sorcerer Mogul of the Mystic Mountain, leading to an epic journey as Hogun seeks vengeance. Successive issues show the group battling their way through a variety of monsters as they search for Mogul, with Volstagg's laziness and cowardice often on display along with excuses for it. However he also demonstrates his skills when he secures the Rod of Wondrous Wizard Power and uses it to deal with both beasts and Mogul's army. There is debate between Hogun and the others over how much help he should accept from them in his own duty to his people but ultimately the four journey together. This story is generally okay in collected form but five pages a month for nine months must have been tedious for contemporary readers and it's easy to understand why the feature is dropped for the time being.

The main strip doesn't hold back on character creation with this run including the first appearances of various trolls, of whom Ulik is the most notable. Others seen from the Troll kingdom are the ruler, Geirrodur, and his slave, Orikal, a mysterious being from another realm who is held captive to power the trolls. There are the mysterious Enchanters, made up of the trio Magnir, Forsung and Brona, who rule another dimension and now seek to conquer Asgard. In one brief adventure Thor battles longstanding Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror and his new weapon, the Growing Man. Another sees Thor take on both the crime boss Slugger Sykes and the ever adapting android Replicus, who feels like another variant on the Mad Thinker's Android and the Super Adaptoid. Asgard comes under attack from the Trolls and the Enchanters but the biggest threat comes in the form of Mangog, the gestalt embodiment of a race defeated long ago by Odin. Mangog is a giant monster that seems impossible to stop as it rampages towards Asgard to seize the Odinsword and cause Ragnarok, the ultimate day of destruction, making for a desperate struggle to stop him.

Loki's schemes and improvisations are responsible for a number of battles including with pre-existing foes such as the Super Skrull but also new ones. In order to regain his own powers Loki turns to Karnilla but at the time when she sends the power Loki's helmet has been taken by a burglar known as the Wrecker and he gets empowered instead. Armed with a now enchanted crowbar, the Wrecker takes on the role of the ordinary mortal empowered by Asgardian magic just before the retcon removes the last possibility that Thor himself falls into this category. Still the Wrecker makes for a good physical foe.

The last few issues see Thor in deep space, this time helping the Rigellians to confront Galactus who in turn is going after Ego the Living Planet. This leads to a confrontation between two very different kinds of gods, with a dramatic showdown. Later Odin shows part of the origin of Galactus. Following this there's another confrontation with Pluto and finally a battle with the mysterious "Him" (later renamed Adam Warlock), created by the Enclave, now seeking a mate and settling on Sif. Thor defeats him but is now succumbing to the Warrior Madness and has to seek redemption. The volume ends with Thor about to embark on a deep space expedition to achieve this.

In some of the adventures Thor is fighting solo but at times he has regular aid from variously the Rigellian Recorder, Balder and Sif. Balder is built up as a good loyal ally of Thor but faces his own problems when Karnilla falls for him and goes courting in her own unique way, even turning to the sorceress Haag to enchant him. But it's Sif who's given the strongest attention. Time and again she is shown as a strong warrior and though she's not a physical match for Thor she can more than hold her own. The affection between the two is strong though it brings its own dangers when Karnilla tricks Sif's spirit into occupying the Destroyer to help Thor only for the armour to overwhelm her, take control and nearly kill him. Later she takes a blast intended for Thor and nearly dies, but Blake's skill as a surgeon saves her. The two work well together and she is a far more suitable companion for Thor in this style of adventure than Jane Foster.

Although there are some problematic pages, in general the reproduction in this volume is quite good and in particular reproduces Vince Colletta's inks sympathetically. Also of note are some of the later issues where in certain shots space and/or Ego appear to be represented by photographs of either paintings or sculptures - it's a bit difficult to tell in black and white but the actual pages have reproduced quite well without the mix of line drawings and photographs turning into the mess seen in other volumes.

As a whole this volume shows a strong coherence and direction. With the totally consistent presence of Kirby and Lee this volume feels like the definitive take on Thor. Over the three volumes so far they have tried and tested a variety of elements and refined them to the point where it's now clear what works. At the same time they have either explained away or steadily phased out some of the more problematic elements. The result is now a solid run showing the series at its height.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1 collects issues #1-7 of the second version of the Handbook, covering the entries from the Abomination through to Magneto. This one began in 1985 and once again the main creative forces are Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown.

The format is generally the same as before but with a much more flexible approach to entry lengths with the result that some characters have entries over two or even three pages, whilst others are small and fit onto only part of a page. The font sizes are now standardised. The character profile pro forma has been modified a bit and is now as follows:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Legal status
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin (sometimes combined with the preceding entry)
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual physical characteristics
  • Strength level
  • Known superhuman powers
  • Abilities
  • Limitations
  • Weapons
  • Base of operations
As before there's a full frontal shot of the character but in addition there are now more pictures showing the character in action, with most or all lifted from past comics and not actually credited. The entries for places such as Asgard, races such as the Lava Men, concepts such as "Gods" and some cosmic entities such as "Death" are in a simpler essay form.

This time round some of the retired and depowered characters like Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan or Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider) have been included in the main section though dead characters have been held back for the slightly renamed Book of the Dead which will come in volume 3. An editorial in issue #2 addresses the inclusion criteria and explains the rationale. It also explains that various licensed characters have been left out for legal reasons and makes one of the last known claims that the Transformers exist in the regular Marvel universe, along with the Micronauts and Shogun Warriors, even though they're not included here.

There's less in the way of Appendixes this time round, with the inside front and some of the back pages primarily given over to editorial commentary to address issues of inclusion, omission, the problems of ensuring information is up to date, and even introducing the main editorial team a bit better. One point that stands out is the involvement of most characters' then-current writer or editor on their entry, providing a strong authority to the ironing out of anomalies and the addition of any necessary information. However some writers clearly wanted to keep their options open and this is most obvious with the mini-entries for individual members of the Imperial Guard of the Shi'ar Empire. In several cases the "Known superhuman powers" entry reads "Unrevealed. It has been suggested that..." and detailing a possible power not yet seen but used by the character's equivalent in DC's Legion of Super-Heroes.

The earliest issues include a glossary and later there's a guide to Alternate Dimensions with brief text only entries in the following form:
  • Type
  • Environment
  • Usual means of access
  • Dominant lifeform
  • Prominent inhabitants
  • Comments
  • First appearance
It's annoying that the split between the inside front and back covers has been maintained here; it would have been useful to have reunited the separate sections rather than having editorials split by over sixty pages. Other than the covers there are no double-spreads and so this wouldn't have increased the page length at all.

There are some occasional omissions, and (jumping ahead slightly) not every one of these is redeemed in later volumes. An editorial in issue #7 explains that this is partially due to foreknowledge and partially a problem of space once the individual issues have had their contents drawn up. One of the most notable absentees is Iron Fist who should have appeared in issue #5, which come out between issues #122 & #123 of Power Man and Iron Fist. Another is Blade the vampire hunter, due to a lack of space in issue #2 but it stands out due to the inclusion of Hannibal King. The other big omission, and the one generating the most mail during the early issues, is the Beyonder. As explained in the editorial his final fate in Secret Wars II was known about in the Marvel office but had not yet seen print at the time the relevant Handbook issue was published and the decision was taken to hold him back for the Book of the Dead.

A few entries bring particular surprises such as the suggestion that in Secret Wars Doctor Doom only gained the Beyonder's power because the latter feigned defeat out of curiosity - and this is revealed in the entry for Klaw rather than Doom's own. The entry for "Ghost Rider" just adds to the ongoing confusion as it's for the Western character previously renamed the "Night Rider", plus his brother and his brother's descendant who both took up the mantle at various stages. The entry acknowledges the names "Ghost Rider", "Night Rider" and "Phantom Rider" as all having been used but sticks to the original (give or take a stray copy error). As this came out in a period when the demonic Ghost Rider was inactive it's easy to see why the name had been restored to Marvel's original character but it just adds to the confusion and worse was to come when a new demonic Ghost Rider came along a few years later.

Back in the mid 1980s this series served a purpose in expanding on the original edition so quickly even if the timing of its appearance suggests that it was a response to the publication of Who's Who in the DC Universe rather than a pressing need to replace the original so soon. But today the value is very different. Even more than the original edition, I am unconvinced that this series is a particular priority for the Essentials. It comes from a period that isn't especially well served by Essential volumes and the series would have first an update and then yet another edition all within the next decade. Including Update '89 there are a total of four volumes to this edition with some characters having more than one entry. The sheer length of the whole thing may make the Essential format the obvious way to reprint it but it really doesn't need reprinting at all.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1

For a special Christmas post it's time for another look at things over at the Distinguished Competition.

Although I had already encountered many US comic stories reprinted for the British market, about the first ever actual US comic I can remember seeing was an old issue of the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents. It was issue #75 in which he teamed up with Arion, Lord of Atlantis in a tale spanning many thousands of years. Having looked at the first volume of Batman's team-ups last year it's natural to now turn to Superman's.

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1 does as it says on the tin and reprints the team-ups from the first twenty-six issues of the title, originally published between 1978 and 1980. Just as Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1 covers the era of Batman's popularity surge with the TV series, this volume covers the period in which the first Superman movie came out and reaches almost the release of the second.

There's quite a lot of creators on this volume with issues written by the likes of Martin Pasko, David Michelinie, Len Wein, Paul Levitz, Steve Englehart, Cary Bates, Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway, Mike W. Barr, Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin. The art is a mixture of Starlin, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Dick Dillin, Joe Staton and Rich Buckler. That's a pretty impressive set of names suggesting this wasn't considered a throwaway title even if the lack of a continuing creative team is a worrying sign. (And yes, there's a separate post for some of the labels.)

Looking back it's surprising how long it took for Superman to get a regular rotating team-up title. For a couple of years at the start of the 1970s World's Finest had switched from the regular Superman/Batman team-up to Superman and rotating guest-stars but even in that short run Batman and/or Robin showed up quite a bit anyway. Otherwise the late arrival of such a book is surprising when Batman and, over at Marvel, both Spider-Man and the Thing had all had team-up books for some years. The imminent arrival of the first Superman movie was clearly the driving force behind the book finally appearing and, presumably, surviving the DC Implosion of 1978 which hit the company just a couple of months after the series launched. But the movie itself doesn't seem to have influenced the content of the series which instead sticks to the standard comic portrayal of Superman. For that matter Wonder Woman is also clearly based on her comic portrayal rather than that of the TV series, which was then in its final year.

As is standard for a team-up title, here's the list of guest-stars:

1. Flash
2. Flash
3. Adam Strange
4. Metal Men
5. Aquaman
6. Green Lantern
7. Red Tornado
8. Swamp Thing
9. Wonder Woman
10. Sgt. Rock
11. Hawkman
12. Mister Miracle
13. Legion of Super-Heroes
14. Superboy
15. Atom
16. Black Lightning
17. Firestorm
18. Zatanna
19. Batgirl
20. Green Arrow
21. Elongated Man
22. Captain Comet
23. Doctor Fate
24. Deadman
25. Phantom Stranger
26. Green Lantern

With the exception of Doctor Fate all the characters are the Earth 1 versions. This selection of guests is drawn very much from the better known end of the DC Multiverse with most of the big name Justice League members represented. With Batman accommodated by the regular team-up in World's Finest the most obvious absentee on the list is the Martian Manhunter. Although time travel appears a lot in the volume the stories and guest stars are rooted in the present day apart from Sgt. Rock who only appears when Superman is thrown back in time to 1944. Also appearing in issue #11, though not billed on the cover, is Marc Teichman, the fictional winner of a Daily Planet prize to spend time with Superman and based on a reader who won a prize on the letters page to be depicted fictionally. There are some cameos by various Justice League members but otherwise the only notable guest-star who doesn't get headlined is Krypto the Superdog, making a rare appearance in Kal-El's adulthood.

There's little in the way of ongoing development in this volume, not least because no writer does more than three issues consecutively. At this stage Clark Kent was working for both the Daily Planet and the WGBS TV station, and we see most of his supporting cast including Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang and Steve Lombard. However they are all primarily used as part of the general background rather than actually driving any of the stories. The first two issues form a single story and a few of the later issues are linked with Superman following up on foes in a second issue even though the first's guest star doesn't come with him. One of the few long term consequences comes in issue #17 when at the end of their adventure together Superman suggests Firestorm should join the Justice League; however this proposal is not followed up here and is presumably continued in the contemporary Justice League of America.

The foes themselves are a mixture of original one-off characters to serve an individual tale and longstanding foes, often key parts of the guest star's rogues' gallery. New foes used here include the Volkir and Zelkot, two alien races who evolved from the same common ancestor but who have now been at war for thousands of years, the Skrynians, an alien race from a dying planet seeking a new world with a suitably cold climate, Frank Rayles, a rich crook and brother of an astronomer, the Sabromians, a set of alien invaders, Hugh Bryant, a lonely alien who has been trapped on Earth for millions of years evolving into the planet's dominant life form at any given moment but now devolving backwards into those forms, Caligro the Great, a failed magician embittered by the success and fame of the heroes, Doctor Horus, an anthropologist whose mind has drawn in both his house and people visiting, Bo Force, a crooked oil magnate, the Masters, an alien race who use an infection to turn humans into their own kind, Starstriker, a mutant seeking to activate his own mental powers, El Muchacho, a mischievous imp, Mr. Genarian, a mobster seeking to prolong his life, and N'Gon, an alien seeking extra power to destroy its duplicate counterpart. Note just how many different alien races are used in this volume. Existing foes seen here include Kaskor, Adam Strange's longstanding enemy, Chemo, the Metal Men's old foe, I.Q., an old Hawkman foe but here appearing against the Metal Men, Ocean Master, half-brother of Aquaman, Star Sapphire, the alien warrior possessing Green Lantern's girlfriend Carol Ferris, the Weaponers of Qward, old foes of Green Lantern, Solomon Grundy, the lesser known Earth 1 version of the swamp monster, Killer Frost, Firestorm's recurrent foe, and Tala, the soul seeking demoness enemy of the Phantom Stranger. And there are the generic foes such as the German soldiers in the team-up with Sgt. Rock. Superman's recurring foes seen here are limited to Intergang, the Metropolis based criminal organisation. There's also a brief appearance by the Reverse-Flash, who in black and white looks almost identical to the Flash bar the background colour on their chest symbols.

The one recurring storyline involves Clark's old friend from his Smallville days, Pete Ross and his son Jon. Pete has known of Clark's identity for many years but concealed his knowledge. Now he turns to Superman for help when Jon is kidnapped by aliens and taken to an alien world. Superman promises to rescue Jon but the Legion of Super-Heroes intervene because Jon's kidnap and separation from his father is a crucial moment in history. This creates a terrible dilemma for Superman and his decision to leave Jon there is one that sits uneasily with him for some time. It also leads to a rupture in his friendship with Pete as the latter turns on him and seeks vengeance then succumbs to madness. Later on in the volume Tala seeks to possess Superman's soul, digging at this incident as it is his greatest failure; however Superman resolves to put things right by bringing Jon home whilst the Phantom Stranger battles Tala. Seeing his son again cures Pete's madness and anger, a little too instantly, and there's a reconciliation between the old friends. It's a pity that this storyline is wrapped up so quickly as Pete could have made for quite an interesting recurring adversary who knows Superman's identity and has a strong personal history of friendship with the Kryptonian that not even the Lex Luthor of this era had. And unlike Luthor his motivation would be a lot more sophisticated than an accident that made him bald.

One of the general rules in these stories (and indeed much of DC in this era) is that it is not possible to time travel to a moment in time when one is already present and so it's not possible to meet one's own self. In general this rule is followed even though it can cause problems but there are two times when Superman encounters Superboy. On the first occasion the space-time continuum is temporarily disrupted, suspending the natural law until the two Kal-Els make physical contact and restore the normal order. Later Pete Ross switches his mind with Superboy's and consequently both the mind and body of Superboy are able to co-exist in the present day with Superman, being able to interact and make physical contact. In general the rule can work to put a restraint upon time travel powers and also constrain the excesses of writers, but it's a little unsatisfactory when it can be circumvented so easily.

In general Superman and his guest stars work well together. Either the guest star has sufficiently comparable power that they contribute strongly to the action or else the situation requires other skills such as detection. The one guest star who feels underused is Black Lightning as his appearance involves dealing with Hugh, whose devolution makes him ever stronger and so by the end of the tale it seems as though Black Lightning is just a bystander as Superman resolves the menace. This may be a consequence of the team-up being seemingly written quickly to meet fan demand on the letters page. On several occasions Superman's powers are temporarily weakened or suspended by events, adding to the tension but also helping to level the playing field. With most of the heroes it's clear that Superman has a long history of working with them, though for the Metal Men this is their first meeting with him.

The page lengths of issues vary a bit, ranging from seventeen to twenty-five pages. It's most notable in the first few issues, clearly due to the title almost immediately getting caught up in DC's expansion plans to only for the DC Implosion to suddenly come along and cut them back. This also sees the series, and DC in general, go through exactly the same cycle as Marvel did earlier in the decade whereby the price and page count both rise for a brief period only to fall back but with the price for the shorter issues higher than before. One sign of overall coherence is that despite the rapid turnover of writers and artists, there are no major mistakes or announcements of forthcoming guest stars who either show up late or not at all.

A team-up book from this era is never going to be the best place to sample a company's overall story structure. However this volume does give a strong glimpse at both the characters and talent at DC at this time. It may have taken Superman a long time to get a team-up title but once established it presents a generally coherent set of adventures that don't lag or descend into excessive formula. All in all this is a good sampler of the DC universe in this period and an example of a title that managed to get things right pretty quickly.

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1 - creator labels

This volume has a lot of creators so here's the usual extra post to carry the labels for some of them.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Here's one of the less well known Spider-Man Christmas covers, coming from the UK's Spider-Man and Zoids #43 from 1986:


And this was the last Christmas for a few years that saw a Spider-Man annual in stockings here:


Friday, 19 December 2014

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1

It's time for a special side-step to look at a Marvel series collected in a black and white on cheap paper - but it's not quite an Essential.

Over the years Marvel have seen many licences come and go, often making it hard to reprint some adventures in later years - we've already seen issues of Giant-Size Spider-Man or Marvel Team-Up amongst other series that have had to be left out of the Essentials because of the guest stars involved. But often the terms of the original licence are more favourable for reprinting the character's own series, albeit in unusual places. Usually the rights to the stories end up being held by the characters' copyright owners and so later licensees can reprint the adventures. The likes of Marvel's Conan, Transformers, G.I. Joe and others have found their way back into publication under these terms (although joint adventures with Marvel's own characters can remain problematic). Doc Savage is another such series, with the rights held in recent years by DC.

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1 reprints the eight issue magazine series Doc Savage from 1975-1977. Everything is written by Doug Moench, with plotting on one story by John Warner and John Whitmore. The art is by the likes of John Buscema, John Romita, Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Marie Severin, Val Mayerik and Ernie Chan. The volume includes a number of pin-ups from the series but leaves out articles and interviews even though it only comes to 448 pages - Showcase Presents volumes have shown a much greater flexibility on page counts than Essentials.

Doc Savage first appeared in 1933 and has very much remained a man of his time. The amazing men - and they were invariably men - of the pulp magazines of the era are the direct ancestors of the superheroes who emerged at the end of the decade but often they haven't aged as well. Whereas the superheroes have been subject to a steady updating over the years, reflecting changing priorities and attitudes, the pulp action heroes and some of the contemporary comic strip characters have proved harder to adapt and update into complex and fallible characters struggling against the odds. As a result there are usually two latter day ways of presenting them - either in a self-mockery that extenuates the ridiculousness of the characters and the situation around them or else played straight in a reasonably accurate recreation of their original era give or take some the embellishments of the original stories. A lot of the movies of heroes of this era or homages to them just fall flat with only the Indiana Jones series really succeeding.

A movie version of Doc Savage was released in June 1975, but I've never seen it in full (and it's not had a conventional DVD release but rather a burn on demand one; a sign of a perceived limited market). Clips on YouTube suggest it was a rather campy take on the character and it frankly looks like it felt at least a decade old on its original release. The trailer is not the most enticing. But it's clear that there was an attempt to drum up interest in the character following the success of the republishing of the original pulp magazine stories as paperback books in the previous decade with James Bama's stylised covers forming the basis for the character's look in subsequent comics. Earlier in the 1970s Marvel had run an eight issue normal sized colour series and there was a both a Giant-Size reprint special and a team-up with Spider-Man in his own Giant-Size series in the first half of 1975. Then came this magazine series, which is a blatant tie in as the first issue came out the same month as the movie and both use the subtitle "The Man of Bronze" although the magazine's cover drops it from issue #3 onwards.

The man himself is not the most developed of characters, reflecting his pulp roots. Doc Savage has trained his body and mind to the ultimate perfection, making him super strong and super intelligent, with fast reflexes and the ability to solve any problem or situation with the utmost ease. He is highly disciplined with most stories showing him taking two hours each day to undertake a physical and mental workout to enhance himself. He is also focused - like many traditional heroes of serialised fiction he shows no interest in romance at all and is instead dedicated to the mission at hand. But here come the two problems with the character. He is too perfect with no substantial flaws that cause significant problems in his adventures. About the only flaw on display is his sexism towards both his cousin Pat and Monk's secretary Monica, declaring "Adventure is no place for a woman" (page 267) when brushing off the former. But even this flaw isn't used efficiently as Pat forces her way into going on the adventure with the regular team from the outset rather than coming in to the rescue. Beyond this Doc Savage is a know-all and do-all who can achieve just about anything and this makes it harder to get excited about such a hero. And at times he seems beyond human - indeed some of his foes explicitly shout this in frustration. On only one occasion do we hear of how he deals with captured criminals (most foes die in the climaxes) and it is to "perform certain surgical procedures upon your brains after which you will remember nothing of this -- nothing of what you did..." (page 389) In other words he will perform lobotomies on them. From a modern perspective the practice itself is horrifying but what's also concerning is the way in which Doc Savage feels he has the right to arbitrarily impose a punishment and literally change how people think. Given the characterisation and the era it is hard to avoid thinking of the concept of the übermensch, especially as that word has historically been translated as "superman".

Now Nietzsche's philosophy is generally unfamiliar to me and his own ideas have had their reputation damaged through association with the Nazis, so it's hard to judge just how far Doc Savage conforms to the übermensch model as originally conceived, though it's notable that Doc Savage's adventures often start out as the straightforward helping of others rather than proactively seeking to save the world and personally make history. But the perfect man is not a character concept that works well in this day and age. It didn't really in the 1960s & 1970s which is why so many film and TV adaptations went down the road of camp and self-mockery. But here we have a straight adaptation of the original pulps that is all too faithful to their 1930s sensibilities and outlook. And that just doesn't feel right.

To some extent Doc's aides, only once here called the "Famous Five", offer a more realistic approach. Several defy stereotypes in their appearance and characterisation but they are all experts in one way or another. They consist of:
  • "Monk" aka Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett Mayfair - expert in chemistry and owner of a pig called "Habeus Corpus" (sic - occasionally the correct spelling "Habeas Corpus" is used instead) who sometimes accompanies him on his adventures.
  • "Ham" aka Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks - top attorney and stylish dresser
  • "Renny" aka Colonel John Renwick - engineer
  • "Long Tom" aka Major Thomas J. Roberts - electrical expert
  • "Johnny" aka William Harper Littlejohn - archaeologist and geologist expert
What immediately dates this group is its composition, being all male and appearing to all be from the same ethnic and social background. Had the not been created until at least the 1960s then there would have almost certainly been a woman there and if created in the 1970s the group would have been multi-racial. The military ranks are mentioned on each introduction and raises questions as to how the first four, who all appear to be around their 30s, could have risen to such high ranks. None of them appear to be career soldiers but equally they seem a little young to have achieved these ranks as recruits in the First World War, especially given that the United States was only a belligerent for less than two years before the Armistice. The problem is slightly compounded by the adventures being given dates between 1933 and 1939, yet nobody seems to age in this time. It feels like these titles have been given to the characters just to enhance their standing as expert support for Savage. Monk and Ham get the most attention, with the two constantly bickering, fighting and playing practical jokes on each other. Ham fancies himself as a ladies' man, although women he flirts with do not always want the same outcome, but most of the team are attracted to at least one woman throughout the run, leaving Doc Savage above sexuality.

Issue #3 states it is starting a series of solo adventures for the five as back-up tales; however that issue's solo story of Monk is the only one to appear and subsequent issues revert to the format of full-length adventures. The story is set at the same time as the issue's main adventure, with Monk thus absent from it, and this restriction may have proved the feature's undoing.

The other character of note from the original pulps to appear here is Pat Savage, Doc's cousin who appears in just issue #5. There isn't room to fully explore her skills and strengths but she is similar to her cousin in many regards and more than a match for any of his aides as well as resourceful enough to force her way into an adventure to Loch Ness. Clearly a forerunner of the likes of Supergirl, she is rather underused and could have appeared more to provide balance in the series and help to pull it forward.

The adventures themselves are very much in the pulp tradition with lots of over the top villainy, some science fiction and fantasy, globe trotting, fancy gadgets and the resolution of matters with fists. There are monsters, mutants, deformed men in iron masks, secret bases, global conspiracies and more. It's all traditional adventuring that sticks to its roots. None of the villains are recurring and the dates given suggest the adventures may take place out of publication order. There's some sophistication, with problems to be solved and so providing a challenge beyond getting to a place and fighting a solution. Some of the puzzles are immensely complicated such as a pair of multi-levelled cryptic clues in the first issue that take nearly four whole pages for Doc Savage to unravel and seem almost impossible for any readers bar perhaps the most advanced crossword solvers. Yet the same issue features a blatant clue to the villain's identity in the form of his name, though notably this isn't remarked upon. Perhaps Doc Savage doesn't want to admit to being so complicated that he overlooked the obvious. On another occasion Savage is able to deduce that "Maison Blanche" is a translation from not English but Spanish and so the destination is not the White House but Casa Blanca.

The reproduction on this volume is quite good considering that the source material for the magazines is often in a worse state than the regular sized comics. A small note on the front page thanks Mark Waid "for loan of source material" suggesting that this volume has been compiled from original copies of the printed magazines themselves. If so then an excellent job has been done in remastering them. Unfortunately a few errors have crept in such as the inversion of pages 166 & 167. I don't know if that error was made in 2011 or 1975.

Overall this volume is of interest as a curiosity, being one of a surprisingly high number of times when one of Marvel's licensed titles has been reprinted by the current rights holder. Unfortunately the contents aren't that great. If you're a fan of the 1930s pulp adventures then this volume is a good homage to them. But if you're expecting something more sophisticated and reflecting the sensibilities of the 1970s then it's a disappointment. Both the character and the wider cast are very clearly dated and no real attempt has been made to update them in any way. That may have been an artistic decision or a restriction of the licence but the result is a fairly lightweight series that fails to hold up by even the standards of when it was first printed.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3 collects issues #1-29 of his second series plus Annual #1 and the crossover issues of Tomb of Dracula #44-45. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, his Sanctum Sanctorum, Eternity and Dormammu, plus a pin-up of Doctor Strange and Dracula from a Marvel calendar and an extra page used in a previous reprint of Tomb of Dracula #45. Most issues are written by Steve Englehart with shorter runs by Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin and Roger Stern, and individual writing or plotting contributions by Frank Brunner and Roy Thomas. The art sees runs by Frank Brunner, Gene Colan and, right at the end, Tom Sutton, plus other contributions by Alan Weiss, Alfredo P. Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Dan Adkins, Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom. One issue sees a framing sequence around a reprint of Strange Tales #126-127 drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. The annual is written by Englehart and co-plotted & drawn by P. Craig Russell whilst the Tomb of Dracula issues are written by Wolfman and drawn by Colan. That's a lot of creators so there's a separate post for some of the labels.

Doctor Strange is a character and series that a lot of writers have struggled with over the years. Some seem to have very little idea as to what to do with the character beyond yet more rounds of battles with the likes of Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare and other foes from the original stories along with yet more encounters with Eternity for the sake of it, continuing to wallow in the legacy of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee but only really offering more homages of the same old. Others try to ignore all those elements and instead thrust the good doctor into new environments, taking him away from all of that but again it can be ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity around Doctor Strange's powers with his power level especially volatile to the point that stories can be resolved with deus ex machina endings. It's unsurprising to find that in this volume there are multiple attempts to contain his power, whether by temporarily depowering him whilst in a specific environment or else overtly trimming his wings when he gives up the role of Sorcerer Supreme, although he gets it back later on under a new writer.

The early issues do a lot for the mythology with the introduction of Silver Dagger, the fanatical ex-Cardinal who has become on of Doctor Strange's most recurring of foes, but otherwise we get an epic retread of familiar themes. But there's a real effort to build on what has come before rather than merely retelling the same kind of adventures. There's a return of Dormammu but as a reincarnation no longer bound by his previous vow to spare Earth and so opening up new dangers. At the same time we learn a great deal more about the Dark Dimension including the revelation that Clea is the daughter of Umar and Orini, and thus the true heir to the throne. Elsewhere Doctor Strange is thrust into the Orb of Agamotto and into the realm where he encounters Agamotto himself. (Although he is not yet explicitly named but it's pretty clear who this giant caterpillar is meant to be.)

There's a growth in the cosmic elements and a willingness to both define and shake up the universe, seen most obviously in the encounter with the personification of Death. Here the entity is presented as male though the female presentation would subsequently come to be the norm. Death and Eternity are now set out as the two fundamental forces in the universe, marking the very brief start to attempts to rationalise the many different seemingly all powerful cosmic entities who have shown up in Marvel comics over the years. Such is the boldness on the cosmic scale that the end of issue #12 sees the Earth itself destroyed by Mordo's madness. And it isn't an illusion or reversed but instead the planet is recreated by Eternity, with accelerated evolution to restore it to the exact moment. However Doctor Strange has to live with the knowledge of what happened, that everyone around him is a duplicate whilst he is the sole survivor of the original planet.

It's surprising just how close to modern religion this run gets. There's explicit acknowledgement of God and where He sits in the cosmic hierarchy with Eternity clearly below him. Later Doctor Strange battles a being who is presented explicitly as Satan. Although he acknowledges other names such as "Lucifer", "Mephistopheles", "Beelzebub" and "Old Nick", there is nothing here to suggest that he is in fact one of the many demons. Truly the Devil is the most inconsistently portrayed character in the Marvel universe.

One of the recurring themes sees Doctor Strange thrust into a variety of worlds in which he encounters aspects of himself and/or his life. One of the most memorable comes in a realm populated by duplicates of Stephen though the ruler is masked. And it seems Steve Englehart's hostility to Richard Nixon continued unabated even a year after the resignation because the ruler is hiding behind a Richard Nixon mask.

This mixture of the fantastic and the personal works well with some good development of Clea. She and Stephen demonstrate a mixture of uncertainty and disagreement over exactly what their relationship is, though given the age of these issues it's surprising that they're all but actually showing us the couple sleeping together. (For that matter the flashback depicting the one night stand between Clea's parents, Orini and Umar, is also quite close to explicit.) The two aren't always on the same wavelength about when they are being master and disciple and when they are a couple, leading to some unfortunate moments. Clea's insecurities are played on by a number of beings, and ultimately she is subjected to a spell by Xander that leaves her amnesiac and angry, attacking even Doctor Strange. Although the spell is short-lived and Clea soon returns to Stephen's side, it's clear by the end of the volume that there are still issues to resolve.

The United States's bicentennial is marked with an aborted saga called "the Occult History of America" in which Doctor Strange and Clea travel through the nation's history to investigate Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. In the course of the journey they encounter Stygyro, who is presented as the perfect contrast to Strange, being a long-lived and powerful sorcerer from a previous era, travelling across the ages and even seducing Clea whilst in the form of Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately both the saga and Stygyro fall victim to changing writers, with the Occult History hurriedly abandoned whilst Stygyro later turns up as one of the Creators. The Creators are the main focus of the rear of the volume as they and their agent Xander work to undermine Doctor Strange, even manipulating him into decisions that remove the Sorcerer Supreme title from him. They are a group of sorcerers working with the In-Betweener to reform the universe through the odd method of swapping places with the stars and remoulding the now human stars in their own image. At one stage the Earth has become a place occupied by anthropomorphic animals, including the boar Doctor Stranger Yet who provides for an interesting confrontation between the two counterparts. The epic climaxes in a showdown with the In-Betweener at the Wheel of Change.

The annual serves as a side-step from this storyline as Doctor Strange hunts for Clea but gets dragged into a power struggle in the realm known as Phaseworld, where the Empress Lectra battles both her sister Phaydra and the angel Tempus. However the revelation of Lectra's lies and illusions in luring Stephen ultimately result in the destruction of the whole realm and all who live within it. It's a curious little tale but ultimately it doesn't amount to much and it's easy to see why it would later be rewritten as the 1990s one-shot Doctor Strange: What is it that Disturbs You Stephen?

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be significant in the long run for the first interaction between the two lead characters but here it feels like a step out of the comfort zone and into a crossover for the sake of a crossover. It doesn't add much to either series and feels like it was done just to boost sales on the weaker selling title, though I'm not sure which one that was.

This run shows a few deadline problems that led to reprints; oddly both of the original stories are included in full here. In issue #3 Doctor Strange is on a journey through the Orb of Agamotto to confront Death and remembers the events of how he first met Clea and Dormammu. Here there's a brief framing sequence to tie things together, with the final page combining both modern and classic material so it would have been hard to present just the frame as sometimes happens when the Essentials come to a reprint issue. Still it's a surprise and delight to see a Ditko-Lee story again even if the contrast between the original artwork and the-then modern style is all too clear. Issue #21 sees a reprint of "The Coming of... Dr. Strange" from issue #169 of the previous series. It's odd that it's included here as the story is presented straight up as a reprint without any effort to incorporate it into the ongoing narrative. Due to a reduced page count a bit of the story has had to be trimmed and, using volume 2 side by side with volume 3, it's possible to compare the two to see what has been change. Most of the loss is in individual pages but occasionally two pages have been cut up to produce one condensed version. As the most substantial version of Doctor Strange's origin to date it's easy to see why it was chosen but it's harder to understand why it was included in this reprint volume unless someone in production failed to spot it was a reprint until it was too late.

Another issue that feels like a deadline problem is #29 which carries a team-up with Nighthawk as they battle Death-Stalker, the old foe of Daredevil. The whole thing feels odd and a little out of place in the run despite being by the regular creative team. Either this was an attempt by a newish writer to go in a different direction from before or else it was prepared as an emergency standby that could fill-in a gap in either this series or the Defenders. Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory ending to it all.

Overall this volume is solid but not always the strongest. The first two thirds show a good attempt to combine the traditional Doctor Strange mythology with some new elements and new takes on the existing ones, and it broadly works to make the series interesting. However there's still some repetition of themes and it continues in the last third of the volume which shows all the signs of multiple writers struggling with the situation they have inherited, with some going in a clearly different direction from what was previously planned, and the result is an unsatisfactory mess. Doctor Strange is a tricky series to get right so it's a pity when such periods don't last for longer.
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