Friday, 9 October 2015

What If... Essential Invaders volume 1?

Starting my brief tour of hypothetical Essential volumes this one is fairly easy to envisage. It's the same contents as Invaders Classic: The Complete Collection volume 1

Essential Invaders volume 1 would contain Giant-Size Invaders #1 which launched the team then Invaders #1 to #22 & Annual #1 plus Marvel Premiere #29 to #30 which crossover to introduce the Liberty Legion and, as a bonus, Avengers #71 with a prototype of the idea and an unusual crossover. As a bonus, we can throw in a number of letterspages that contain essays by Roy Thomas on the characters, the inspiration and some of the artists. These issues also make up the contents of Invaders Classic volumes 1 & 2 bar #22, which is in volume 3 (a minor reshuffling to add an extra issue to Complete Collection volume 2). Everything is written by Roy Thomas with Ed Summer providing plot assistance on one issue. The Giant-Size is drawn by Frank Robbins who becomes the main artist on the regular series with individual issues drawn by Rich Buckler and Jim Mooney. One issue reprints an old story from Captain America Comics #22 drawn by Al Avison (no writer is credited) with a new framing sequence added. Two other issues reprint old Sub-Mariner stories from Marvel (Mystery) Comics #1 and #10 by Bill Everett. The annual unites Robbins with Alex Schomburg, Don Rico and Lee Elias. The Marvel Premiere issues are drawn by Don Heck and the Avengers issue is drawn by Sal Buscema. Due to the large number of credits the labels for the reprints are in a separate post.

(In the digital edition at least, Invaders Classic: The Complete Collection volume 1 places all the non-regular issues at the rear despite the Marvel Premiere issues incorporating a crossover and the annual explicitly saying it's set between issues #15 and #16. As part of the What If?ery we can correct that.)

Even without knowledge of Roy Thomas's long championship of the Golden Age heroes it's clear that this was a very special and personal project for him. The series goes monthly with only its second issue, but drops back to bimonthly after the following issue only to go back to monthly publication again with issue #8. A spin-off series was conceived even before the original had launched and was given a crossover with a try-out title to set it up (and given a further boost in the Marvel Two-in-One annual for that year) though it didn't take off. Such a commitment to a series not set in the present day and starring characters whose fates were already set is extraordinary. But this series was riding a wider trend of Second World War nostalgia, which at this time produced a lot of fiction set then such as the first season of the Wonder Woman television series. It also saw old Marvel characters revived but everything was not quite as it came before.

There is a longstanding belief that Marvel has always maintained a single continuity and never turned whole characters, series or runs into alternate universes or made into fiction within fiction or just abandoned them altogether, in contrast to DC. That's only really true if all you read are superhero comics from 1961 onwards. Continuity was much laxer in other corners of Marvel's output, whether that was the original Two-Gun Kid being turned into a fiction the second one read about or the multiple & contradictory retellings of how Millie the Model's career started or the awkward relationship with chronology in many war comics. Or there were various superhero revivals that ignored what had come before, especially when it came to sidekicks or just how long the heroes had been out of action. The Marvel superhero output from 1961 onwards sought to present a coherent whole out of the new material (although it's had its share of continuity errors, retcons and "it was all a dream" moments over the years) but even it has been less than faithful to older and non-superhero material when incorporating the characters. And Invaders maintains this tradition, as explained in an essay by Roy Thomas on the letters page for the initial Giant-Size issue. The Golden Age comics are a source of inspiration and some individual stories will be referenced or reprinted but the overall continuity of the comics, such as it existed in the 1940s, is not going to be adhered to - indeed one issue shows Bucky and Toro devouring a collection of comics and commenting on how their published exploits don't reflect what they've been up to lately although this explanation has to be reinforced to explain how Captain America's secret origin came to be published. Other changes are more mixed - a retelling of Toro's origin generally seeks to add to what was shown in the 1940s but the Destroyer's identity and original published origin are dismissed as theories published in comics. More generally the series doesn't try to navigate periods when the individual heroes were shown based in other countries. Nor are costumes sacrosanct - Namor wears his modern swimming trunks rather than the simpler version he originally wore, which actually becomes a plot point later on, whilst the costumes of some of the Liberty Legion members have been modified from the original or assembled as a composite of various appearances. Overall this approach to continuity allows the new stories to move forward easily, taking the assumption that in the 1970s there would be very few readers who had read the original stories and would be put out by this revisionist approach. In an era of collected editions when some of the Golden Age series are now just as accessible as the Invaders themselves this may not be the best assumption but both sets of stories were written for their time and not since.

The biggest retcon of all is the existence of the team; back in the Golden Age the "Timely"/Marvel heroes didn't form a team until after the Second World War and the All-Winners Squad only managed a couple of (awkwardly numbered) issues. Since the All-Winners Squad had no official origin it wouldn't have stretched things too far to show them as having operated during the war itself but the name is rather lousy and a bolder incarnation was a better approach and doable with a looser regard for 1940s continuity. It also allows for a different approach to the members, keeping the Whizzer and Miss America in the States as part of the Lethal Legion and allowing the Invaders to organically grow additional members. But the core is always the "Big Three" heroes of Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, together with the first two's sidekicks, Bucky and Toro.

These five are the logical starting point as "Timely"'s biggest heroes, with all three adults either revived in the present day or replaced by a newer incarnation. There are strong tensions amongst the group with Namor and the Torch traditional rivals, the Torch feeling somewhat inferior as an android compared to Captain America, Namor harbouring resenting of the surface world but agreeing to ally against the Axis powers and both Bucky and Toro being over-enthusiastic at times. But it's also clear that the five are all willing to work with and trust one another in the heat of danger, reinforcing the team. All of them get their chance to shine though Toro's biggest issue is mainly told in flashback whilst he's being rushed to hospital. The team noticeably lacks a woman at first, an especially surprising omission as women had been part of nearly all the Marvel teams going right back to Miss America in the All-Winners Squad, but this is soon corrected with the introduction of Spitfire, an original British hero who gains powers after a transfusion from the Torch. She also brings a degree of romantic tension with the Torch falling for her but she has eyes only for Captain America who is oblivious to all this. Also added to the team is the British hero Union Jack, initially a peer of the realm and veteran of the First World War but after he's crippled in battle he retires the identity and it's later picked up by another who has previously used the identity of the Destroyer.

But the heroes don't stop there with a second team created via a crossover with Marvel Premiere. The Liberty Legion is comprised of seven lesser known heroes from the Golden Age, assembled when Bucky is the sole Invader to evade capture by the Red Skull. Sending out a radio broadcast he brings together the Patriot, the Whizzer, Miss America, the Red Raven, Jack Frost, the Thin Man and the Blue Diamond. Being more obscure heroes there's greater scope to modify their appearances a little, as detailed in a text piece at the end of the second Marvel Premiere issue. They demonstrate promise in holding their own against the mind controlled Invaders and the Red Skull and are assigned the task of battling enemy agents operating in the United States itself. However the market probably wasn't ready for endless retroactive Second World War adventures and so it's not surprising that they didn't take off in their own title.

As well as the Liberty Legion there's a third team introduced in these pages albeit with inspiration from elsewhere. The Crusaders are a group of six heroes who are based on the Freedom Fighters from DC/Quality Comics. This was part of an unofficial joint homage with the Freedom Fighters around this time also encountering a group called the Crusaders, who were thinly disguised versions of the Invaders. Unlike the earlier Squadron Supreme/Champions of Angor, not as much has been done since with either version as a whole though here one member, Dyna-Mite (based on Doll Man), is used to good effect in the following story. The others are more generic, being given their powers and equipment on a one-off basis by a Nazi agent. The Spirit of '76 is an America hero based on Uncle Sam but the others are all British including Captain Wings (Black Condor), Ghost Girl (Phantom Lady), Thunder Fist (Human Bomb) and Tommy Lighting (the Ray). They serve their purpose but don't make too much of a mark. The only other hero introduced at this stage is the Golem, here incarnated around a Polish Jew trying to survive in Warsaw.

The original tales show a strong degree of research with Frank Robbins proving especially knowledgeable about fighter aircraft and his art has a suitable retro style that captures the slightly awkward feel of the era. The writing is also strong on the big picture, with some missions even tying into real history such as Winston Churchill's early 1942 visit to Canada and the United States. But the devil is in the detail. The portrayal of the UK at war does its best but at times it does slip into clichés with a few too many characters talking in either Cockney or an exaggerated upper class dialect that nobody actually speaks and the attempts to have the Crusaders speaking a range of dialects from across society is an admirable aim but not really achieved. And whilst Americans coming to the UK during the war understandably had more important things to learn than the finer details of aristocratic titles or how to address & refer to the Prime Minister, British characters have no such excuses and it's a surprise to see things like Union Jack saying "Mr Prime Minister" or the Falsworths and their butler's sloppy use of titles. There are other odd moments such as Ghost Girl using the metric system in 1942 (the UK didn't move to adopt it for another generation) though significantly Spitfire doesn't. And George VI wears a rather flamboyant uniform to launch a ship, rather than the more standard naval uniform he often appeared in during the war. Also there's the impression that Thomas isn't too clear about what the Home Guard's actual function was, although in fairness the Home Guard largely carved out its role and forced it upon officialdom.

The series takes the heroes back and forth across the Atlantic and English Channel, fighting a range of Nazi foes and even taking the fight to Hitler's doorstep. There's a partial attempt to build up counterparts, starting with Master Man, a Nazi equivalent of Captain America with less skill and charisma. Namor is countered by U-Man, a renegade Atlantean, whilst Spitfire's counter comes in the form of Warrior Women, a German agent who gains size and strength by accident and whose costume and whip are a Comics Codes Authority compliant version of bondage fetishism - it's amazing how much Marvel got away with her look. There's also the usual assortment of mad scientists like Brain Drain, whose life has been preserved in a mechanical body, or the Blue Bullet, a scientist in a hulking armoured form, or Colonel Dietrich, who shrank Dyna-Mite down, and officers like Colonel Krieghund or Colonel Eisen aka "The Face" after being caught in an explosion. Teutonic mythology supplies the identities for four aliens, Donar, Froh, Loga and Brünnhilde, who get used by Brain Drain as unwilling agents. Much more willing a monster is Baron Blood, a vampire who has had special surgery to partially overcome some of the traditional weaknesses. And there are the biggest Nazi villains of all, the Red Skull and Adolf Hitler. Each seems to be on a private mission to chew as much scenery as possible with Hitler portrayed as a cowardly monster. On top of all this are various enemy agents such as Agent Axis and old foes like the Hyena, the Shark and the Asbestos Lady. The series doesn't pull its punches with a number of important villains and number of lesser troopers killed along the way.

The annual feels very awkward and artificially constructed. As explained in a text feature at the end, it serves two main purposes. One is a pure exercise in nostalgia as three Golden Age artists - Alex Schomburg, Don Rico and Lee Elias - return to characters they drew decades earlier by providing the solo chapters for a traditional format story that separates the main heroes before reuniting them at the end. The other is to jump through a number of hoops to explain the presence and appearance of Cap, Namor and the Torch in Avengers #71 when three of that team, the Vision, Black Panther and Yellowjacket, were transported to Paris 1941 as part of the Grandmaster's tournament with Kang the Conqueror. Although the name "Invaders" was not used, the three 1940s heroes shouted "Okay, Axis, here we come!" and two had been differentiated from their modern appearances by featuring Captain America's original shield, even though he only used it in one issue, and Namor's 1940s swimming trunks. (Such an approach of digging out early differences and using them for longer than they had originally appeared had been standard practice over at DC with the Earth 2 Justice Society of America characters.) Plus this appearance was set before the formation of the Invaders. Now we get a complicated tale of two old and obscure Golden Age villains, the Hyena and the Shark, plus new creation Agent Axis, a strange being who is the lightning induced fusion of German, Italian and Japanese spies, being sent to obtain a sample of the Torch's blood, Cap's shield and Namor's swimming trunks to help the German war effort. This results in Cap and Namor's appearances changing just before all three get taken out of time (the other Invaders are on missions elsewhere) to take part in the Avengers issue and we get the battle from the Invaders' perspective. It's an awkward hybrid of Golden Age nostalgia and strained Bronze Age retroactive continuity and the result as a whole is less than satisfactory.

The reprints are a curious mix. Issue #10 comes as the Invaders rush Lord Falsworth and Jacqueline to hospital and during the flight Captain America thinks about the shadow of the Grim Reaper, causing him to reminisce about an adventure that will have a "basically true" account printed. Cue the reprint of "Captain America battles the Reaper! (The man the law couldn't touch!)" in which he battles a villain called the Reaper who carries a scythe but otherwise there's no death imagery and instead it's a tale of a Nazi agent who rabble rouses people against authority. The moral of the story that we should trust our leaders and not listen to trouble making rabble rousers is one that just hasn't aged well at all and would have been especially hollow in the post-Watergate States. Later on we get reprints of two old Sub-Mariner stories, including his very first appearance (with the eight page version) with both stories helping to explain why he has grievances against the surface world, though it's a little disquieting to see Namor and others of his race (here they are all called "Sub-Mariners") talk of war against the "white men" as though he's an aquatic noble savage.

Is Invaders a title that would have been worth an Essential volume? In principle yes, although the existence of the Classic tradepaperbacks may have led to market saturation though the Complete Collection is practically the colour version of an Essential volume. Overall this is a series with a strong sense of adventure and a determination to not merely weave around the "Timely" Golden Age tales but to take the elements and come up with something strong and lasting. The decision to overwrite the original 1940s continuity, such as it ever actually existed, may not be to everyone's taste but it's generally done to allow greater flexibility in pulling the various teams together, although the decision to rewrite the Destroyer's origin, identity and background and then to merge the character into a new incarnation of another hero feels rather wasteful. But beyond that this is a series that brings to life the writer's passion for the heroes of the 1940s and finds good things to do with them, developing the mythology well beyond what had been there before.

What If... Essential Invaders volume 1? - reprint labels

This hypothetical volume would reprint some reprints of Golden Age titles and the labels for them are included here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Some Fantastic Four previews

As is standard upon completing a full set of Essential volumes for a particular series, I now take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the Fantastic Four there are actually quite a few such issues.

Fantastic Four #218 written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by John Byrne, reprinted in Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2

This is the second part of a crossover with Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man involving the Frightful Four, who on this occasion have recruited Electro as their fourth member. They have already captured Spider-Man and now the Trapster impersonates him in order to infiltrate the Baxter Building so the Frightful Four can take out the Fantastic Four one by one.

This is a fairly traditional plot but it was part of a brief fill-in run on the title. The Frightful Four have long offered potential for development but have always been somewhat constrained by the lack of a permanent fourth member. Electro may not be female but otherwise he fills the role quite well and has some history with the Sandman so more could have been done. However Spider-Man's presence in the story is almost needless as the Frightful Four are operating at night and could easily have impersonated him without his noticing it. The story is also noticeable for an attempt by Sue to evade capture by turning invisible away only to find her dressing gown doesn't disappear with her. Stories over the years have been rather inconsistent on how her powers affect her clothes when not made of unstable molecules. This issue is serviceable but very much a reworking of past stories.

Fantastic Four #286 written and drawn by "You Know Who" aka John Byrne, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1

This is the second part of a mini-crossover with Avengers in order to set-up part of the new title X-Factor. The Fantastic Four (during this period the Thing had been replaced by She-Hulk) return to Earth where they temporarily staying with the Avengers and get caught up in the mystery of a capsule discovered in the harbour. Inside they find none other than Jean Grey, but with memories that stop several years earlier. Reed, Sue, Captain America and Hercules set out to try to find out what went wrong.

This is one of the most controversial issues in Marvel history, starting from an editorial rewrite that led to John Byrne taking his name off the issue and the controversy spread further due to a retcon rewriting one of Marvel's most famous stories, the "Dark Phoenix Saga". Adding to the mess was a conscious desire to keep X-Factor separate from the Uncanny X-Men for at least its first year and so the job of doing the heavy lifting to set up the new title fell upon other series. As a result an extra-long issue with no adverts feels less like a special issue of Fantastic Four and more of an intruder from another series; a point reinforced by the way both the Fantastic Four and Avengers know very little about the X-Men's adventures in recent years. There's the odd good moment such as Sue standing up to Reed in disagreement about taking Jean to her parents' home or using her invisible shield to neutralise Jean's telekinetic abilities without regard for those around her but overall this isn't really a Fantastic Four story. Its significance and controversy lies elsewhere.

Fantastic Four Vs the X-Men #1 to #4 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Jon Bogdanove, reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 7

The Fantastic Four find themselves shaken to the core by the discovery of a journal suggesting Reed engineered the original cosmic rays accident to empower them by design. Reed suffers a major crisis of confidence and rejects the X-Men's pleas for help to save Shadowcat's life. Then Doctor Doom steps up and offers to perform the task.

This is very much the Fantastic Four's story with the X-Men largely serving a role that could have been performed by any group of heroes. We get a strong character focus that zooms in on one of the biggest holes in the four's origin, namely how could someone as smart as Reed fail to foresee the danger of cosmic rays and suggests it was all a plan, as well as exploration of Doctor Doom's ultimate goals. Reed's self-doubt and the others' uncertainties make for strong moments as the Four, including She-Hulk who tags along despite being in the Avengers these days, come to realise just how strong their bonds our. Franklin is used to maximum effect as his powers show a fear of what is to come whilst his innocence cuts through the suspicion and anger that rages amongst the adults. The story strains a little to credibly include She-Hulk, suggesting it originated in a period when it wasn't too clear just which four of the five regulars would be around for the long run, but otherwise it's a strong character study of Reed and, to a lesser extent, Doom. It's surprising that it took over a decade before Chris Claremont took on a regular run on Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four Annual #23 (main story only) written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Jackson Guice, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 4 and also in Essential X-Men volume 10

This is the opening chapter of the "Days of Future Present" crossover that ran in the 1990 annuals for X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men, and serves as a sequel to one of the best known X-Men stories. The present day is visited by an adult Franklin Richards who is clearly undergoing some trauma and taking refuge in bringing happy childhood memories to life, including an earlier version of the Four living in the Baxter Building. After a confrontation with the alternate incarnation, plus an attack by robots from the future, the current Four track down the adult Franklin as he continues reliving his childhood. Meanwhile a mysterious robot is activated by his presence.

Here the focus is on establishing the adult Franklin and setting up the mysteries to be resolved in the later chapters so there's not too much plot advancement and a chunk of the chapter seems more concerned with contrasting the present day Four with the 1960s incarnation. The decision to do smaller annual crossovers was undoubtedly a good move for readers' wallets but a side effect is that the stories are now much tighter and so individual chapters are insubstantial on their own. This is very much the case here.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9 consists of issues #184 to #207 (#189 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annuals #12 & #13. The writing sees the end of Len Wein's run and the start of Marv Wolfman's with other contributions by Roger Slifer and Bill Mantlo and the annuals are by Wolfman and Mantlo. The art sees the end of George Pérez's run and the start of Keith Pollard's with other issues by Sal Buscema and John Buscema and the annuals by Bob Hall and Sal Buscema.

This is a volume with quite epic ambitions but also one which seeks to explore just what the four's purpose is in sticking together and doing all that they do. It's a lofty approach that only grows once Marv Wolfman takes over from Len Wein but it reflects the problem this series has traditionally had in that too many creators can't find much to do and so retreat to the safety of rehashing things from the Lee-Kirby run. But a series has to look forwards not back and this one well and truly succeeds.

It's not always smooth sailing though. The series is hit by some especially bad schedule problems such that issue #188 ends on a dramatic moment and isn't properly continued until issue #191. In the meantime we get first a reprint (not actually included here) and then an "Album Issue" as Ben recalls some key moments in the four's history, including several past break-ups. Given the situation the four is currently in this retrospective feels more appropriate than the average recap fill-in issue but it's still treading water at a critical moment. Moreover, a two issue delay would have been extremely unhelpful when these were originally released but even here they contribute to a slowing of critical momentum. However once this problem is passed the series experiences an extremely smooth changeover of writers with Wolfman almost effortlessly carrying on from Wein and taking the four from a difficult break-up to an eventual reunion that feels natural and not at all forced.

The annuals are a sea of calm amidst the changes all around them though their placing does create a few small problems. Both are put between issues #201 and #202 but the first annual is presumably set earlier on during calmer times for the four - but there isn't an obvious place to put it despite it being written by the series's regular writer. The second annual is by another writer and so can be more forgiven for not quite fitting into the regular events - it does its best to explicitly set itself directly after the four reforms in issue #200 but issue #201 starts out in Latveria before bringing the four home and there isn't an obvious moment to detour into the events of the annual. It's an early example of the problems of a policy that tries to rigidly place all issues in publication order clashing with the aim of ongoing storylines in the regular titles. The annuals themselves are an interesting mix. The first one sees an adventure with the Inhumans where astonishingly the villain of the piece isn't Maximus for once. Instead the Inhuman antagonist is Thraxon, who has been given temporary powers by the Sphinx. What seems like a typical piece of annual inconsequentialness, although reasonably well written, will turn out to be more significant later on in the volume. The second annual is a more typical piece that almost could have come from file but for scenes showing the four getting themselves back into business. Otherwise we get a tame tale of the Mole Man kidnapping blind and ugly people and giving them an alternative life underground where they are accepted, a life that some actually accept. It's a reminder of how not everyone finds it easy in life but the option of just dropping out and setting up an alternate civilisation isn't a terribly enviable alternative.

Over in the regular series much of the first half of the volume is driven by events stemming from Reed's loss of his stretching powers and Franklin's & Agatha Harkness's kidnapping, both at the end of the last volume. It's quite a character arc for Reed as he faces up to situations in which he feels helpless but still has to find a solution, starting with an attack by the Eliminator, an armoured being who shows up at Agatha Harkness's mansion with the task of eliminating all traces of her time in the outside world. The search takes the four to New Salem, a settlement hidden in the mountains ruled by witches led by the fearsome Nicholas Scratch. Scratch has assembled a team of warriors known as Salem's Seven, made up of Brutacus, Gazelle, Hydron, Reptilla, Thornn, Vakume and Vertigo. Upon returning to New York we get another invasion of the Baxter Building, this time by Klaw and the Molecule Man, the latter trying to obtain a body of his own. In the process he possesses Reed's, to terrifying effect. Reed fights for control but afterwards feels that without his powers he has become a weak and inefficient member of the four who is vulnerable to being used by villains so opts to resign. Sue declares she will go with him and with no obvious replacements the four are dissolved.

As the album issue reminds us, this is not the first time one or more of the four have quit. But rather than someone storming off in a moment of anger or a misunderstanding driving people apart, this fracture has been steadily built upon. For all the apparent weaknesses of other team members, Reed's stretching powers have often seemed the least important part of the four with his intelligence being a much more significant role. Having him drop aside immediately upon being depowered would have felt odd and he does initially try to use science to compensate, reactivating his old metallic extensions from a previous time when he lost his powers. But overall he finds himself weakened in mind as well as body and ultimately chooses to not be a burden to the others. And critically the four don't formally reassemble as a group for many issues to come. A reunion is teased in what was clearly intended to be the next issue when Ka-Zar's old foe the Plunderer tries to steal the four's equipment when the Baxter Building is shut down, but despite everyone responding to Reed's flare it's only a temporary respite.

We then get a series of solo~ish tales of individual members of the team who gradually find themselves drawn back together. So Johnny goes car racing in the desert and catches up with Wyatt Wingfoot again, only to face off against the Texas Twister who has been hired to kidnap him by an unnamed person. Ben returns to space piloting, taking up a job with Nasa where the space shuttle programme suffers sabotage and interference by Diablo, who is using Darkoth, an old friend of Ben's who was framed and then mutated by Doctor Doom. Sue goes back to acting, getting a role in a Hollywood picture but finds the studio is still owned by Namor the Sub-Mariner, who has left Atlantis in horror at the way his people have virtually deified him but his kingdom deploys a group of robots called the Retrievers of Atlantis to take him home and the incident makes him reconsider his position. Reed takes up scientific work for the government without realising which one and that he's helping a foe with a plan to take over the world.

These tales allow each member of the four to shine some more without having to share too much space with the others, a particular useful period as the main focus of the storyline falls upon Reed. The others find themselves getting ever strong and more powerful, particularly Sue who is now really using her forcefields to maximum effect. It's all good character building in the run up to the anniversary issue. There are various humorous asides throughout the run, with the Impossible Man prominent at first as he pops up (sometimes literally) in a succession of issues as he tries to understand the world around him, most notably movies. Most of the time these are comical asides but they do reach a more serious point when confronting Klaw as the Impossible Man duplicates the villain's sonic horn and the use of the two weapons causes a sonic feedback boom. Otherwise the Impossible Man is generally an irritation and eventually he takes the hint, only to reappear in Hollywood and pester everyone until Sue reads him the Riot Act.

Reunion eventually comes but surprisingly it's staggered and facilitated by Doctor Doom. Capturing first Reed and then the others, he proceeds to demonstrate his perceived superiority by finding a way to restore Reed's stretching powers, but the inadvertent resurrection of the Red Ghost puts a spanner in the works. However the process allows for a minor modification to the four's origin to explain why only they and the Red Ghost have gained powers from cosmic rays and not the countless others who have now flown into space. Meanwhile Doom is planning a master plan to simultaneously gain Latveria greater diplomatic acceptance, take control of the United Nations and seemingly step away from ruling Latveria, leaving it to his previously unseen son whom he plans to transfer the four's powers to. With the other three captured, Reed embarks on a bold solo mission into Latveria where he joins with rebels following Zorba, the legitimist pretender to the throne, where they attack and discover the truth about Doom's son.

This all builds up to issue #200, one of the first anniversary issues to be double-sized. And appropriately it has a showdown between Reed and Doctor Doom, with the former demonstrating that stretching is no silly throwaway power that can't make a difference. It's a strong battle, augmented by the other three rushing to stop the rest of Doom's plan, and really gets into the heart of the hatred between the two men, showing Reed in all his glory. This issue set a marker for double-sized anniversary specials that contain big moments and by having the formal reunification of the four, a triumph over their arch enemy and the conclusion of a long-running storyline it certainly sets a high standard for everything that was to follow.

The remaining issues in the volume start off as something of an anti-climax, beginning with another attack in the Baxter Building almost as soon as they've reoccupied it, followed by a team-up with Iron Man as they confront the cause of the attack, Quasimodo. Then there's an encounter with a young mutant whose powers create twisted doppelgangers of the four but also showing how they help with the small problems as well as the galactic ones. Then the final few issues see an interesting split in the team as Reed, Sue and Ben go off into space but Johnny stays on Earth. Given the timing it's tempting to wonder if this was a reaction to the late 1970s cartoon that used the first three but replaced Johnny with a robot called Herbie as the rights to Johnny had been sold elsewhere. Herbie doesn't appear in these issues but otherwise it seems the most likely reason for the split. The first three go off into space to help Adora, ruler of Xander, to see off an attack by the Skrulls. It's a different angle to the same storyline from the last issues of Nova and once again an Essential volume ends partway through the storyline, with the three's spacecraft suddenly meeting that containing Nova, the Sphinx and other characters. Meanwhile on Earth Johnny feels he should complete his education but finds he no longer impresses women around him and is too much of a celebrity. Soon he is invited to study at Security College, apparently an institution for the children of the famous and important. However Johnny and a guest-starring Spider-Man soon discover sinister operations are being undertaken by the Monocle, using the students as tools.

This volume is slightly weakened by being open-ended at both ends, especially as it is now the final Essential Fantastic Four volume, but it shows both respect for what has come before and imagination to build upon the foundations for strong new tales. The build-up to issue #200 is carefully handled and allows the series to delve into the four both as individuals and as a group, reaffirming what holds them together. This is a generally good volume but let down by ending midway through a big storyline with seemingly no resolution.

The months ahead

Those of you keeping tally (and I know there are some) will have observed that we are coming to the last handful of Essential volumes and may be wondering what now.

I won't be looking in-depth at DC's Showcase Presents volumes (although I might do another special one) or any other lines but instead will aim to bring the site to a neat conclusion in the New Year. But before I reach that I'd like to salute a few more significant titles that were never covered in the Essentials but I'll be doing it in a different way from before.

This time I'm going to look at some hypothetical Essentials, imagining the contents of a prospective first volume for a title based upon various other collected editions so as to get a good first chunk of the series. These reviews will appear in the regular slot and approximately alternate with the actual Essentials over the next few months. Watch out for the first one next week.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2

Continuing the proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2 contains issues #13 to #25, continuing to retell old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson apart from one issue by Peter David, and drawn by Keith Pollard, Ron Frenz, James Fry, Al Milgrom, Tom Morgan, Steve Buccellatto, Bruce Solotoff, Phil Lord, Steve Geiger, José Marzan Jr, Hector Collazo and Keith Williams.

This volume continues the practice of summarising key storylines from Marvel's Silver Age, aided by reproducing many panels and using text captions and the occasional piece of new art to accelerate the retellings. Once again the origins are enhanced by later additions to the mythology such as Daredevil's debut including his history with Elektra and Stick as well as the original story. There's also some good tying together of stories to show their impact, such as the Crime-Master launching his attempt to take over the New York underworld at a time when the Fantastic Four are powerless and in hiding, Thor has departed for Asgard for the Trial of the Gods and Captain America is still making his way home through the South American jungle following his final showdown with Baron Zemo. Such a placing goes well beyond a mere wish to have a reading order and helps to show the Marvel Universe as a more integrated whole than it was realised at the time.

The choice of which characters to devote space to retelling their first adventures is a surprise, such as the many pages given over to the debut of Diablo compared to single panels each for the likes of the Grey Gargoyle, Kraven and the Owl's first outings. The cliffhangers to each issue aim to end on a dramatic point midway through a key story but occasionally the story in question is underwhelming or the foe has rather declined in stature since the 1960s. Issue #20 ends with the Frightful Four invading the Baxter Building and the final panel is the Wizard holding the Human Torch hostage. It's a reminder that the Wizard has rather plummeted off the A-List of foes since the Silver Age, his participation in the Prime Movers of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover not withstanding, making the ending rather underwhelming.

Issue #22 sees a change of approach to the series (and a new editor - Adam S. Balustein succeeding Danny Fingeroth) and is devoted to Peter Parker and Mary Jane's relationship, as the Spider-Man wedding was close. So we see the whole course of it from Aunt May's first matchmaking through other girlfriends and the failed first proposal up to the wedding day, all in one issue. It's a different pace from before and also notable for being about the first place to suggest Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man right from the outset. But there's also an odd moment at the end as a page from the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one shot is reproduced to try to support the two being made for each other, yet it shows Peter crossing the lines of friendship before realising his mistake - almost as though it was intended to support the two not being together. Whilst it's nice to see an entire issue devoted to the background to one of the biggest events in Spider-Man's life, it would have been much better off as a stand-alone special rather than slotted into the regular series.

The remaining few issues see the saga focus in on specific events for the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer, rather than the broad approach of showing all the key events across the whole universe. Did the new approach kill the series or was it an unsuccessful attempt to save it? Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory change of course and all the momentum of the first twenty-one issues is lost as we get a narrow focus on the wedding of Reed and Sue, the discovery of the Inhumans and then the coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer with their origins retold from later issues, showing in particular how the Surfer's past influenced the feelings Alicia reawakened within him. It's unfortunate as the wedding annual was the first significant time almost the entire Marvel universe was caught up in the same story and where it fits into the various series's continuities is something that isn't particularly well explained. We get the origins of Galactus and the Silver Surfer but surprisingly not the Inhumans.

The defeat of Galactus is presented as "a turning point in the history of the cosmos... [the] day humanity's representatives first proved themselves more than equal to the task of mastering the great challenges set them by the cosmos", and thus the point on which to end the series with a three page coda describing some significant events to come, ranging from Spider-Man's famous triumph in the remains of Doctor Octopus's headquarters to the battle between Dormammu and Eternity through to the Dark Phoenix Saga. There's a bit of a "and they triumphed and lived happily ever after" to some of the summaries such as Thor facing off against a witch doctor with the last of the Norn Stones or Namor rescuing Dorma and recovering his throne. Finally the Watcher reveals himself as the narrator of the whole series

Overall this volume shows the misfortune of the change of direction, abandoning the integrated tapestry of the Marvel universe in favour of retelling individual stories with additional backstories added in. That said, the latter approach could be a way to bring new readers up to speed on key characters, without having to subject them to expensive trade paperbacks (in the days before the Essentials but even with them it can take a lot of time and money to build up a complete run and the Epic series's habit of jumping about isn't conducive to chronology) or lengthy and controversial retellings. In the early 1990s this approach was followed with a couple of mini-series including Spider-Man Saga and Wolverine Saga, and there have been some more recent one shots in a similar format.

But that would be individual histories and not really worthy of the title "The Official History of the Marvel Universe" which should have been restricted to a total history across the line rather than segmented sections. The original broad concept of the series is a good one though in an era when so many of the original comics are easily available in reprint form it can now feel a little overlong in its retellings. But even with the issues available the big picture is lacking and this series set out to provide it. It's a pity that got abandoned when it did but the first two thirds of this volume maintain the original aims and good standards.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Omitted material: Wolverine '99 Annual

Absent from Essential Wolverine volume 7 is Wolverine '99 annual. The reason for this one's absence is even less clear, though the lead story has since been reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion, for which it supplies the cover. Both stories are written by Marc Andreyko with the lead drawn by Walter McDaniel whilst the back-up is drawn by Massimliano Frezzato.

Once again we have an omission of an annual with two stories, one of which features Deadpool and has been since reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion (which also uses the cover on the book as a whole) whilst the whole issue is available digitally. Again it's a mystery as to why this was left out when there doesn't seem to be a rights barrier to publication.

The first story sees Wolverine investigating an author of were-wolf fiction who seems more acquainted with the subject material than he should be. But Deadpool has been hired to kill the author and to complicate matters further a live were-wolf attacks. The back-up tale sees Wolverine in the middle of a poker game with other heroes when the beer runs out and he has to get some more, only to run into street thieves, ninjas from the Hand and a Dragon in quick succession, all while Nick Fury's flying car is vulnerable.

This annual feels like it was thrown together from inventory material in spite of a reference to an encounter between Kitty Pryde and Deadpool in the latter's series. The first story is standard team-up fare as the leads meet, fight and then find themselves forced to team up against a bigger threat, though throughout there remains a tension as Deadpool may still carry out his contract killing. But otherwise this is a fairly mundane encounter with a forgettable foe and even Deadpool's dialogue is on less than sparkling form. The back-up strip is in a curious grey tone style and it appears to have been prepared for an abandoned black and white special. It's a strange little tale that runs the gauntlet through all the traditional types of Wolverine stories but doesn't get much further than some comedic jokes. As a piece of back-up fluff it's okay for what it is, nothing more.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 7

Essential Wolverine volume 7 contains issues #129 to #148 plus the crossover issue Hulk #8. Surprisingly absent is the 1999 annual. Most of the volume, including the Hulk issue, is written by Erik Larsen, at times collaborating with Eric Stephenson or Fabian Nicieza. Early issues are by Todd Dezago with one script by Brian K. Vaughan. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu and Jeff Matsuda, with contributions by Cary Nord, Ron Jensen, Mike Miller and Roger Cruz, with the Hulk issue by Ron Garney.

This is the Essential volume with the most recent material of all, covering the series from the late 1990s. But it also covers Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary and contains a good number of hat-tips to his previous adventures in a suitably nostalgic mode. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans for Wolverine can clash with wider plans for the X-Men family of titles, as we will come to see.

The first few issues show a series in the traditional problem as it looks for an ongoing writer and marks time with a series of rather forgettable fill-in issues. The main theme here is of monsters in one form or another, with Wolverine facing off against the latest incarnation of the Wendigo, an alien spider in the Himalayas and a wife beater. There's a brief nod to the recent marriage to the Viper when she persuades Wolverine to go the Himalayas after a Hydra expedition failed but otherwise this is a plot point that will soon be forgotten. Issue #131 originally had a notorious error when "killer" was accidentally lettered as "kike" but this edition use the corrected version rapidly put out instead. Issue #132 shows that not all monsters are creatures with the return of the Higgins family who live near the X-Men's mansion; when the mother is found dead and the daughter badly injured Wolverine goes in pursuit of the father who has fled, taking the son with him. It's a good focus as Wolverine contemplates how his prior demonstration of his humanity by not killing the father has led to this, but there's a twist at the end. But overall the book has been floundering for ages with no clear permanent writer and that has to change.

That change and more comes with the arrival of Erik Larsen. Right from the outset there's a real sense of a determination to do things differently from the traditional style, with ninjas and the Far East both notably absent during the run. Instead there's a move towards more traditional elements of the Marvel universe, including an issue when it seems just about every second tier hero available in New York goes after Wolverine in quick succession. The idea of Wolverine confronting Galactus seems absurd but it manages to work in its own way. That's not to say there aren't appearances by various X-Men or Alpha Flight in the process but overall we get a different and strong take on the series that seeks to put the hero through different situations from before.

The run kicks off with the six-part saga "The Great Escape" although notably only the first issue carries the banner on the cover. It sees a steadily expanding scope, beginning in a bar with Wolverine and Warbird (formerly Ms. Marvel and Binary and have I left any identities out?) and then steadily expanding through "Too many guest stars to count!" before taking Wolverine out into space to a prison planet run by the Collector and containing both the Starjammers and Torgo, a rarely seen robot from the pages of Fantastic Four. He's aided in all this by Aria, an alien who can possess others' bodies and makes the classic mistake of acting first to grab help rather than seeking to persuade it first but despite this Wolverine comes anyway. However, there's a twist as Wolverine discovers the purpose of Prison World only after he destroys its defences and reveals its location, leading to the oncoming destruction. There's a strong theme of failing to consider and explain throughout the arc with the Collector, Aria and Wolverine all arrogantly thinking they know best and not discussing it with others, resulting in tragic consequences. The battle with Galactus is as one-sided as you'd expect but Wolverine isn't under any illusion that he can do anything beyond buying a little time. His bone claws prove ineffective at a critical moment, reinforcing the need to regain his adamantium and overall it's a much humbler Wolverine who returns to Earth after realising his blundering and weaknesses have had major consequences. This is a very different type of tale from the normal Wolverine saga but it never loses sight of the character regardless of the situation he's in. It bodes well for the rest of the run.

Unfortunately there's not too much space available to do a great deal before the series has to cover two big events that will take in the last third or so of the volume. So in the three issues before that we get a team-up with Cable against the geneticist Arnim Zola, then a team-up with Nightcrawler to battle first some androids and then Cardiac and Solo, two less well remembered mercenaries, and finally a team-up with Jubilee to battle Donald Pierce, with some help from the mysterious Khyber. Spot the pattern? It's as though the title is turning into a Wolverine team-up series without explicitly acknowledging this is where it's going, though at least most of the guest stars and villains so far have a history with Wolverine. But team-up titles are rarely the place to really develop the lead character due to the ever-changing supporting case and demands from other series. And Khyber is poorly explained, appearing to be a cyborg version of Wolverine without any acknowledgement at all of the similar Albert but this isn't explicitly stated; nor does he appear to be a foreshadow of what is to come. As a whole these stories are mixed and not really offering too much excitement or a sense of the way forward for the series. But first it's going to look back a bit.

With Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary falling in 1999 it was inevitable that there'd be some revisiting although to its credit the series doesn't explicitly ram home the point until the main anniversary issue itself. In the meantime the series starts with a two part team-up with Alpha Flight, which primarily serves to undo all manner of changes made over the years, resurrecting characters, killing off duplications, ending relationships and demoting members such that by the end the story has re-established the line-up of the original team plus Puck. Given Wolverine's early history with Alpha Flight it's understandable that such big changes could take place here but a lot of these changes are implemented in a very sweeping manner with a number of the lesser characters written out in a flashback that explains their demotion to Beta Flight, leaving the main story to focus on Wolverine and the restored original team invading an AIM base to rescue Guardian where they battle with Modok and also Kane from the Weapon X programme. It falls to a back-up story in the second issue to sort out some of the detail though not every aspect of latter day Alpha Flight continuity is addressed, leaving this as one of the more blundering retcons ever carried out.

Wolverine's first appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk gets a latter-day revisit in a two-part crossover with that series in its renumbered and (temporarily) renamed form. We get a flashback story set immediately before the first appearance as the Leader kidnapped Wolverine, Hercules and Karkas of the Eternals as part of a plan to use them against the Hulk. It's a suitably nostalgic piece that shows us Wolverine in his first days in the original costume without simply retelling his debut story. This helps set the scene for a modern day rematch as Wolverine once again gets sent by a government agency to tackle the Hulk in the Canadian wilderness, leading to a fierce fight in which both combatants seem somewhat out of character even before Tyrannus takes over the Hulk's mind. Wolverine is especially brutal, temporarily blinding the Hulk with his claws in order to level the odds, as though the battle is a rejoinder to the many past clashes between the two.

And then comes the big anniversary issue but the whole thing is deflected by being caught up in the lead in to the next big X-Men crossover "Apocalypse: The Twelve". Worse still issue #145 opens as though it's flashing back to events in other titles that contain one of the most significant revelations going. Once again this series sees a major event in the lead character's life take place elsewhere. And we get a mind-numbing retcon that can be summed up as "Skrulls? Yeeesh!"

It's revealed that for a number of issues (but just how many of this series is unclear as the revelations are anchored to recent events in X-Men) that Wolverine has been a prisoner of Apocalypse who has transformed him into his new Horseman Death, including restoring the adamantium skeleton and claws by taking the metal from Sabretooth. Wolverine's long-time nemesis is seemingly dispatched in a quick flashback, in order to demonstrate the ruthlessness of Logan's conditioned form. Meanwhile Wolverine has in the interim been impersonated by a Skrull who has been conditioned to subconsciously act and think like Wolverine in every way. The whole thing feels nonsensical and unplanned. It seems to be a way to reinforce Apocalypse as a longer term planner with enough time to carry out the changes but Apocalypse has captured and conditioned Horsemen quickly before so it's more likely a way to paper over any perceived out of character behaviour and negate recent stories. It's a pity as whatever their weaknesses the Skrull retcon just doesn't add anything or even allow the series to side-step a particular status quo. The conditioned Wolverine battles first the Hulk and then the X-Men before steadily overcoming his conditioning; however Archangel in turn seems to be undergoing a relapse and this leads to further conflict. Overall "Apocalypse: The Twelve" this is a convoluted crossover to understand from just the Wolverine issues alone and it feels like a messy intruder on the series despite leaving restoring Wolverine to his traditional form.

But the final issue is even worse for understanding what's going on. "Ages of Apocalypse" seems to be a glimpse of either a horrid alternate future or an alternate reality that has arisen out of the previous crossover but it's not too clear. Nevertheless we get a good little tale of the New Fantastic Four, comprising Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Ghost Rider as they battle against Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Blastaar, the Harpy and Arnim Zola in this dark world. It's a good take on a particular team who have usually been more popular in theory than in practice. But in the bigger scale of things this is a confusing issue to understand because of the way the crossovers have stomped all over the regular series at the end of the volume.

This is a volume that tries to find a new direction for the series rather than endlessly rehashing all the traditional elements of Wolverine and shows some imagination in throwing him into unusual environments. It also does its best to honour the character's history for his anniversary. However at times the series seems to be overdoing the restoration of older status quos and the whole thing is rather blown off course by the X-Men crossovers at the end along with the silly Skrull revelation. As a result this is a volume that all but explicitly says that large chunks of it don't matter which is a pity as it showed the series starting to get its act back together when left to its own devices.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1

It's time a proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1 contains issues #1 to #12 of The Marvel Saga: The Official History of the Marvel Universe, a special series launched in 1985. It retells many old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson and drawn by Ron Frenz, Tom Morgan, Al Milgrom, Walter Simonson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Geiger, Keith Pollard and John Buscema. Additionally each introductory page and rear "Classic Cover Gallery" are included.

Marvel and DC seem to have spent a lot of the 1980s either copying one another's projects or experiencing simultaneous ideas. Both did their first major company wide events in that decade (Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths). Both produced special encyclopaedic series devoted to detailing their characters (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who). Beyond the comics themselves, both licensed their characters for a series of action figures. And both produced their first "official histories", limited series which sought to bring order to the turbulent chaos of the continuity of their early years. DC's effort was the History of the DC Universe. Marvel's was The Marvel Saga. Who had the idea first in each of these cases isn't always clear as sometimes one company would learn of the other's plans and rush a project through to reach the market first. And I'm sure many of these ideas had originally been suggested by fans – "A story bringing all the heroes together" or "A guide to the heroes and villains" or "A history of the universe" are all pretty straightforward ideas and probably featured in fanzines long before the publishers took them up (but then fanzines didn't have to wait for the direct market that would make most of these projects viable).

The Marvel Saga sets out to summarise the key events in the history of the Marvel universe, showing how they fit together and illustrating them with panels from the original stories. After a few pages of introduction the series pretty much begins with the origin of the Fantastic Four and works from there through the early years of the Silver Age up until the revival of Captain America, explaining characters' back stories when they become relevant. This prevents the series from being bogged down in all the legends of Greece and Scandinavia and other material only relevant to a few, and instead allows a broad range of heroes from the outset. Unfortunately the habit of introducing the backstory only when significant characters debut can disrupt the flow of retelling an individual adventure, such as when the history of Odin is given in one go midway through the story of Thor's first battle with Zarrko the Tomorrow Man. It also means that the Golden Age of the 1940s isn't presented in a narrative order. It's always been somewhat ambiguous just how canonical the Timely and Atlas comics are in the Marvel universe and no answer is given.

What is clearer is the placement of events relative to each other. Thus Spider-Man's origin, which includes weeks of fame, is spread out and other adventures such as the origin and early battles of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four's first encounters with both Namor the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom take place between the radioactive spider's bite and the final showdown in the warehouse. A lot of fans have long taken to trying to work out the exact order in which stories take place, and even what order they should read and perhaps their entire collections in, and this is surely the ultimate realisation of such a chronology. But this doesn't just include the earliest issues themselves but also later revelations and retcons such as including much of Professor Xavier's history and the origins of the individual X-Men or including with Iron Man's origin his escape from the Vietnamese jungle and first meeting with James "Rhodey" Rhodes or showing Thor's youth and punishment by Odin at the point when Donald Blake is introduced into the history. This means the series doesn't leave latter-day readers in confusion as they try to reconcile the current state of affairs with the somewhat different status quo in the earliest days. Sometimes later retellings of origins are used as the source of panels and this is particular useful over cliffhangers as it allows alternate art to depict the reprises.

Early on the run it seemingly tries to summarise almost all of the adventures but it soon settled down and relegated many a lesser tale to a small text section entitled "The Continuity Corner" which puts issues in chronological order relative to one another. This most notably cuts down on a lot of adventures with obscure forgotten foes such as the Scarlet Beetle or the Acrobat and seems to hit the Ant-Man and Human Torch stories more than any other series.

Read all at once rather than over some two and a half years this series shows several common themes running rampant in the early Marvels. There seem to have been no end of obscure alien races visiting Earth in the early days of Marvel with most of the heroes encountering at least one. There was also no end of Communist enemies. When this series was first published in 1985-1987 the Cold War was still going on and it was just about credible (by the standards of the Silver Age) for there to have been so many Communist foes in then-recent history. But nowadays the Cold War finished over two decades ago and Marvel is more open about its floating timeline with the modern era of heroes starting anything from a decade to fifteen years ago. It's also surprising just how often the Fantastic Four fell out or how frequently the Thing regained his human form.

The saga is clearly aware of later stories as well which may have impacted the choices for inclusion such as showing the first battles with obscure foes like the Vanisher and Thug Thatcher. It also does its best to reconcile the early Silver Age adventures of Namor the Sub-Mariner and Captain America with what was revealed or restored to continuity later on, such as explaining why neither really recognises their old comrade in arms at first. The introduction of Captain America in issue #12 goes to some length to flesh out all his history prior to his release from the iceberg, with the various additions to the origin, the Invaders retcons and the immediate post war replacements all included in the details when the Avengers finally find him. Given his prominence on the cover of issue #1, reproduce as the volume's cover, it's interesting to speculate just how Wolverine's patchwork past would be handled.

Overall this first volume of The Marvel Saga is surprisingly fun and easy to read. The concept could risk excessive boredom whilst the widespread reprinting of even the more obscure parts of the Silver Age might have made it redundant for an audience who can easily access the original tales. But instead it offers its own distinct take on the events and makes an excellent effort to weave the tales together into a greater whole. The shared universe and overlapping characters was always a big part of Marvel's appeal and it's good to see this taken to the logical extent.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Essential X-Men volume 9

Essential X-Men volume 9 comprises Uncanny X-Men #244 to #264 & Annual #13 (excluding the Saga of the Serpent Crown chapter that has nothing to do with the X-Men). Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Jubilee, Master Mold and Zaladane. All the regular issues are written by Chris Claremont though the annual lead story is by Terry Austin and a back-up by Sally Pashkow (or not - see below). The art is mainly by Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee with individual issues by Rob Liefeld, Rick Leonardi, Kieron Dwyer, Bill Jaaska and Mike Collins. The annual is drawn by Mike Vosburg and Jim Fern.

This volume covers one of the bleakest periods in the series so far. The early issues see the continuation of the "Outback era" as the team continued to operate out of an abandoned Australian desert town and teleport around the world. The most notable long term impact of these early adventures comes in the very first issue where the female members of the team go on a trip to a shopping centre where they battle the M-Squad, a rather lame set of mutant hunters who are a blatant parody of the Ghostbusters, before returning home with an unknown follower, the rich girl turned orphaned "mall rat" Jubilee. At first it seems she will be taking on the innocent youngster role that's been absent ever since Kitty Pryde was injured out of the series but initially she instead operates in secret without the other X-Men knowing and subsequent events mean that we don't get to see her in the traditional little sister role just yet. Meanwhile the male members go out on the town only to run into a rather ineffective bunch of alien invaders called the Conquest. It seems as though this will be a period of light-hearted tales but things will soon change.

The annual is unusual as the only X-Men issue during his entire run that doesn't have Chris Claremont's name on it. But is he completely absent? The back-up story is credited to Sally Pashkow, a name that hasn't appeared anywhere else in comics. Opinion on the net says that this is a pseudonym for Chris Claremont though everything seems to be pointing to each other, and its inclusion in the X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Volume 1 Omnibus may be more down to a sequential run than anything else. (As a result I've included a separate label to cover all possibilities.) But regardless of whether this is Claremont or a one-off writer in his style the result is a character piece as Jubilee finds herself in the outback town and hides herself away with the aid of Gateway, then starts observing the X-Men from afar and borrowing some clothes. It mainly serves to build up the new character. The lead story is part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover that ran through all the Marvel annuals in 1989 and it resorts very much to formula as a villain, in this case Mr. Jip from Terry Austin's work on Cloak and Dagger, recruits the heroes to find an object of power of unclear importance. The team is split in three and sent to different locations to tackle the problem, here complicated by the Serpent Society. And it's an effective failure as at the end the main villains from the crossover get their hands on the powerful objects. Overall this annual is rather peripheral to the whole "Atlantis Attacks" saga, achieving nothing that couldn't have happened without the X-Men's presence. It's a surprise that Claremont doesn't write the story, perhaps deciding to opt out of taking part in the mess, but the result is the one X-Men story in a very long time by another writer. And it almost seems to be saying that anyone who thinks Claremont has outstayed his welcome should think again as it's very dire in its handling of the characters, with some especial silliness when Dazzler and the Serpent Society's Diamondback temporarily switch bodies. This is easily forgettable.

The tension ups when Nimrod and the remains of Master Mold merge, creating one of the deadliest anti-mutant machines yet. The battle is fierce, with Senator Kelly's wife killed thus increasing the senator's hatred of mutants. Victory only comes when Dazzle deploys the Siege Perilous crystal to send Master Mold to either happiness or recreation, but Rogue is also lost in the process. Rogue has recently been portrayed with a split personality as Carol Danvers comes to the fore more frequently, generating some tensions as each takes control of the body in succession, but the battle terminates any resolution to this dilemma. This starts a steady break-up of the team with Longshot soon dropping aside to go and seek his own identity and history. It's a sign of both his insignificance to the run and the bigger events around him that this departure is almost shoehorned into wider events but he isn't really missed. Then the remains of the team, with Wolverine temporarily away, face the first of two fierce attacks on their doorstep in rapid succession. Nanny, the robotic "egg with a voice", attacks and in battle Havok's energy blast destroys Nanny's vessel with Storm onboard. And unlike most such comic explosions, the body is seen and confirmed afterwards. An interlude comes as the dwindling team respond to a distress call from the Savage Land where they face Zaladane and the Mutates, with the return of Polaris who now seems to have been freed from the control of Malice. Zaladane claims to be Polaris's sister but this plot element isn't really cleared up in time before the last of the X-Men are teleported home to Australia where Donald Pierce and the Reavers are waiting for them.

The series has been building up to this moment with a number of hints and visions that this will be the last stand of the X-Men with no way out. Instead the four - Psylocke, Dazzler, Colossus and Havok - take the one escape route to hand, by going through the Siege Perilous to begin new lives elsewhere. As they admit it is running away from the situation and to add to the indignity this ending is revealed in a flashback shown to the returning Wolverine by Gateway. Wolverine is left as the last of the X-Men and put up for crucifixion by the Reavers but escapes with the help of both Jubilee and Lady Deathstrike's sense of nobility. And so a whole era of the X-Men comes to an end not in glory but in defeat and running away.

But this isn't the end of the series at all. The X-Men have generated many ex-members, allies and influences over the years and the next dozen issues focus on a number of these characters but without assembling a new team. Issue #253 sets up the situation, with its cover reused for the volume as a whole. Initially the main focuses are on Wolverine and Jubilee as they head off into the Far East, the mutants based around Muir Island, with Banshee and Forge really coming to the fore, and a mysterious young girl found in Illinois who resembles a young Storm. Elsewhere various of the X-Men who went through the Siege Perilous come to terms with their new lives, suffering amnesia of their past lives but finding their past can't completely escape them. Unfortunately there is limited unification between the various story strands with the result that the focus jumps around between them and plots can take an age to conclude.

During this phase comes the second big crossover on this volume's watch, "Acts of Vengeance", which, for a change, comes out of the Avengers titles after three years of X-Men derived events. But were it not for the triangles in the top right hand corner of issues #256 through to #258 then one could be forgiven for not realising this is even part of the storyline. It may feature foes the X-Men haven't faced before in the form of the Mandarin and the Hand but there's no co-ordinated attack on our heroes or any reference to the Mandarin's role as one of the Prime Movers supposedly co-ordinating the entire thing - indeed the Mandarin portrayed here is the more sophisticated crime lord that had been developed over the years rather than the traditional ranting supervillain shown in the main portion of the event. This detachment may be of necessity as current events mean the X-Men are presumed dead, impossible to detect with electronic equipment and now lost and scattered by the Siege Perilous, which doesn't really lend itself to enemies launching attacks upon them. Instead we get the basic crossover theme of a villain from another series tied into some very traditional themes for the series of strong women being twisted into ever more powerful agents of enemies and ninjas, plus Wolverine's connections in the Far East from his own solo title.

The most notable event here by far is the transformation of Psylocke from a Caucasian telepath in armour worried about her physical weakness into an east Asian ninja woman. Exactly how her ethnicity is changed is rather brushed over but the whole thing now feels extremely uncomfortable. If an east Asian ninja woman X-Man was needed, it would have been easy to create a new character who could easily be added to the team. But instead an existing character has such a fundamental part of her altered to fulfil the role, as though the genuine article wouldn't do. The story touches upon aspects of culture conflict between the Far East and the West, most notably showcasing the clash with Jubilee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, who proves a highly Americanised tourist who dislikes what she sees. Then she is captured and forced into a traditional serving girl role as a small part of the Mandarin's goal of revitalising the traditional Chinese kingdom. Overall his portrayal is a strong step away from the traditional Fu Manchu role he's sometimes given and Psylocke's transformation does fit into some of the themes but that doesn't redeem the effect even if her new look as a replacement Elektra is wildly popular. The sequence in which her mind is steadily twisted by a quest through distorted memories in order to obtain the Mandarin's ten rings is also a good idea in theory but let down by much of her background not having been previously explored outside the Captain Britain comics in the UK and so the whole things can be confusing at times. All in all the transformation was a mistake that chased a trend and it's amazing that it was allowed to stay permanently, no doubt because of the popularity of the new look.

Whilst Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee make their way onwards to Madripoor with the complication of Wolverine being haunted by images of Nick Fury and Carol Danvers that he thinks are real, other X-Men are coming to terms with their new lives. Dazzler finds herself a singer in Hollywood and her movie is finally released, but former producer Eric Beale stalks her. Colossus becomes an artist and a maintenance man in an apartment block but soon gets entangled with both the Genoshan Magistrates and then the survivors of the Morlocks. The child Storm is being pursued by the Shadow King who frames her for murder, resulting in her going on the run.

Forge and Banshee are built up in a way that suggests they will be the next members to join or return to the team, but it's unfortunate that Banshee's recovery of his powers goes unexplained at first and it's only after a further injury that we see the Morlock healer restore him. Meanwhile Polaris finds her magnetic powers gone but in place of them her body is growing in size and she now has super strength but this goes unexplained. The three of them become part of an ad hoc grouping based on Muir Island along with Moira MacTaggart, Legion, Amanda Sefton, Sunder and other hangers on not seen in a long while, facing off a brutal attack by the Reavers that sees them bailed out by Freedom Force with casualties all around including Destiny. The ad hoc team also wears a uniform, hinting that it could become a new new X-Men but it doesn't take off as such, not least because of one of Legion's dark personas taking over. Magneto is given the image on the volume's spine, taken from the cover, but only appears briefly as he resigns as headmaster of the school and drifts off to his old ways. It's a slightly awkward scene that appears to be trying to rationalise the increased use of the character as a more traditional villain elsewhere, most notably in the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover.

The only convergence of the various plotlines comes at the end of the volume as Forge and Banshee encounter the amnesiac Colossus under the name of "Peter Nicholas" and battle first the Morlocks and then the Genosha Magistrates with the help of Marvel Girl from X-Factor. Along with some individual comments over the issues it seems as though the various mutant teams are being drawn together to be treated as parts of a single whole once more but there's a central element missing. Wolverine is at least stepping up to a Professor Xavier role when he utilises Harry Malone's Harriers to test Psylocke and Jubilee in the absence of a Danger Room. But overall the series is still in scattered pieces.

The art is often strong and it's easy to see how Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee gained such a following. However the writing on the series is in heavy decline. The series has shifted from a long-term careful build-up of plots to an almost random chucking anything against the wall to see what sticks and letting storylines drag on for much longer than they can sustain. The idea of splitting up the team and exploring individual members and the supporting cast is not a bad idea per se but it's very poorly executed and the resulting issues just don't work well. The worst idea to get through is the race transformation of Psylocke but overall this is an exceptionally poor volume for the series.
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