Monday, 30 March 2015

Roger Slifer 1954 - 2015

Writer and colourist Roger Slifer has passed away from complications following a hit-and-run incident in 2012. Mark Evanier has more details at News from ME: Roger Slifer, R.I.P.

His work included writing for a number of 1970s series such as Defenders, Marvel Two-in-One, Power Man, Iron Man and Avengers. Later he wrote Omega Men for DC where he co-created Lobo before working in animation on a number of my childhood cartoons such as Transformers, Conan the Adventurer and Jem and the Holograms.

The circumstances of the accident and his condition in his final months are heartbreaking.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 4

Essential Wolverine volume 4 contains issues #70 to #90. As a bonus there's a one page feature on Albert and Elsie-Dee which appears to be from one of the various "Something Files" one-shots that were all the rage in this era. Everything is written by Larry Hama. The art is a mix with the largest number of issues by Adam Kubert and others by Dwayne Turner, Jim Fearn, Tom Coker, Ian Churchill, John Nadeau, Ron Wagner, Ron Garney and Fabio Laguna.

The issues in this volume come from 1993 to 1995, a period that many look back on as an era of comics that often neglected organic story in favour of flashy art, gimmick covers, rampant crossovers and dramatic changes to characters that were often soon reversed. The volume reflect some of this but not all, whether through the series not going that way at the time, reprint editorial choice or the luck of the format. Without knowing what "X-Men Deluxe" means on the covers of the last few issues it's easy to miss that this was a period when a number of Marvel titles were published in two formats - at a higher price on deluxe, glossy paper with "full bleed" artwork printed right up to the edge of the pages, and at the standard price on traditional newsprint with standard white borders. (It sounds great that readers could chose their preferred format and sales at the time were strong enough to support two versions. But annoyingly the standard format came out two weeks later and so most comic shops assumed readers wouldn't want to wait to read their series and so prioritised ordering the deluxe format. Unsurprisingly the standard format was soon phased out, to further annoyance of other readers when their titles were subsequently switched to the deluxe format without any chance of a say so. By mid 1996 the deluxe paper was largely abandoned.) Issue #75 had a deluxe cover with a small hologram image on it, and no non-deluxe alternative. Here the cover is reproduced with the hologram represented by a vague image. It's as though the volume has been assembled by scanning original issues directly; this explains why everything has the colour burned in as greyscale and also why the last few issues seemingly alternate between the standard and deluxe formats. Where the volume does suffer especially is that there is a heavy liking for double page spreads that leave dialogue too close to the binding to be easily read. Worse still some of the double page spreads are sideways on, requiring the volume (or the head) to be rotated 90 degrees in order to be able to read it; a particular problem if reading in public. Adam Kubert is the main but not the sole offender

More fortunately for the narrative flow this volume only includes the Wolverine issues from two of what were by now annual X-Men family crossovers. Issue #85 is part of the "Phalanx Covenant" from the summer of 1994 which served to introduce a new team title, Generation X, though none of the team appear here. The issue is part of the "Final Sanction" phase of the crossover along with an issue of Cable but rather present all of this section of the storyline let alone the entire crossover we instead get a one page text summary of the entire event. It's an inelegant solution but it saves the latter part of the volume from being overloaded with a crossover that doesn't feature that much of Wolverine. The single issue here sees him reunited with Cyclops, Jean Grey and Cable as they battle the Phalanx, described in the summary as "a race of techno-organic beings with a collective intelligence bent on the conquest of all other sentient races". Well at least they look too much like the Borg. The issue isn't particularly memorable for Wolverine beyond a reunion with Scott and Jean that gets cut short by the action and the arrival of Cable, whose family ties and history are becoming better known.

"Fatal Attractions" has an importance of a completely different order. Issue #75 was part of the X-Men's thirtieth anniversary crossover that ran across special large issues of each of the six main X-Men titles, complete with hologram covers. This series's contribution comes towards the end and follows up on a major battle with Magneto in which the Master of Magnetism uses his powers to rip out Wolverine's adamantium skeleton. It's a bold change for the character, and unlike some other big alterations for comic characters in 1992-1993 it's not reversed within a year or so. It has long running consequences as Wolverine's healing factor is impaired after saving his life and he embarks upon a journey to both discover his new limits and see old friends for possibly the last time. But astoundingly this change doesn't happen in Wolverine's own title; compounding this the Essential volume doesn't include X-Men (volume 2 or the one launched in 1991) #25 in which the incident happens. Instead we jump from the last few traditional adventures of Wolverine and Jubilee as his sidekick to the aftermath of the battle as the other X-Men struggle to keep him alive whilst flying him to Muir Island aboard a damaged Blackbird. From the perspective of Wolverine's solo series alone this feels like a mistake, though it may seem differently from the perspective of the X-Men titles. Major changes for characters with ongoing solo series should ultimately take place in that character's own title, especially if, as here, the title hasn't taken part in the overall crossover until after the big change has happened. In general this series has not relied on other titles to tell its stories and so it's been possible to read in isolation despite originally being published in an era when many series were so tightly tied together that it became almost impossible to follow them in isolation. But here by far the biggest change to the character, and one that heavily drives the story for at least the rest of the volume, happens off stage from the series and from the volume. It may have been possible to include X-Men #25 here on its own to at least rectify the error in collected form though it would have impacted on the space available to reach the natural ending point.

Before the change comes we get a couple of classic style Wolverine adventures including the resolution of volume 3's cliffhanger after a gap of only eight years. The battle with Sauron and the Savage Land Mutates is wrapped up fairly quickly and then there's a battle with a rogue Sentinel that now seeks to eliminate all life on Earth, complete with a time travel that allows Jubilee to discover the circumstances behind her parents' death. This leads to Wolverine taking her to confront the mobsters responsible and teaching her lessons about revenge and killing, showing her strengths and innocence. All in all these stories aren't bad but compared to what comes next they now feel like marking time.

Losing the adamantium has a dramatic impact that allows the series to go its own way, taking Wolverine out of the X-Men for the time being as he sets out on a journey on self-discovery. (And in the interests of reciprocity I'll note that it must have been equally irritating for readers of X-Men but not Wolverine to not see a significant change in the team's membership.) The journey takes him to a number of old stomping grounds including the Canadian wilderness, Edinburgh, Muir Island and Tokyo. Old foes cross his path, either in the belief that he still has the adamantium or to take advantage of his weakened state, starting with Lady Deathstrike and continuing with Cylla, Bloodscream, Cyber and the Hand, whilst there's also a clash with the Hunter in Darkness and its offspring. There are old friends too including Alpha Flight members Puck and both Guardians/Vindicators, Heather and James Hudson, then Shadowcat, Nightcrawler and Moira MacTaggart, followed by Yukio to whom he entrusts raising his adopted daughter Amiko. With James Hudson agreeing to serve as Wolverine's executor it becomes clear that Logan is now contemplating the end, no longer as powerful an invulnerable as he once was. But this vulnerability also gives him a new edge as he is more at risk but more determined in his battles.

Wolverine is also not without weapons. A revelation comes when he suddenly grows bone claws. This may have been an attempt to limit the effects of the loss of the adamantium and keep him recognisable but it also signifies a slow descent towards a more feral form, accompanied by periods of delusion and madness. His journey is partially interrupted by the "Phalanx Covenant" bringing a reunion with his old X-Men comrades and then there's an odd tale with Albert and Elsie-Dee having travelled through time and battled the Adversary and the savage Man-Killer Wolf with help from future versions of Wolverine and Forge. Then we continue the journey of past acquaintances as Wolverine and Gambit team up to battle the Hand, encountering Maverick, another of the Weapon X programme agents who is now dying from the Legacy Virus. Then there's an encounter with another from the programme, Deadpool, in which it becomes clear that Wolverine's healing factor is returning to its previous levels. A team-up with the second Ghost Rider pitches Wolverine against his old mentor Ogun once more, before the final issue sees Wolverine back in the mansion for a showdown with Sabretooth.

The crossover interruption aside this storyline has been a good extended piece that allows the series to explore its lead character under significantly weaker circumstances, making the impact of Magneto's attack more than just switching adamantium claws for bone ones. It also fits neatly into a single volume rather than once again ending mid storyline, though thankfully the wait for the next volume was nowhere near as long as the eight years it took for this one to arrive. There is a cliffhanger here as reality shatters but it's part of the wider "Age of Apocalypse" storyline that otherwise has no impact on this volume. Instead we're once again looking at a strongly focused solo series. Although it's clear that straying too far from the concept of the edgy man with claws and a healing factor would take the series too far, the book nevertheless seizes the opportunity to both build on the foundations of Wolverine's past and take the series forward.

This may come from an era of comics with a bad reputation but this volume is actually quite good. With one big exception the crossovers aren't that intrusive, the character changes are handled organically and the fancy covers and paper don't have much impact on a black and white reprint. The main irritations are the large number of two page spreads with difficult to read dialogue at the binding and the widespread use of artwork that can only be read by turning the volume on it's side. Otherwise this is a series that manages to keep to its core goals of telling strong ongoing stories about the character that require little external reading to enjoy them.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Essential Defenders volume 4

Essential Defenders volume 4 contains issues #61 to #91. The writing is mainly by David Anthony Kraft and Ed Hannigan with other contributions by Mary Jo Duffy and Steven Grant. The art is mainly by Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin with other issues by Ed Hannigan and Sal Buscema.

This is an odd volume with Defenders enjoying an overall period of membership stability and yet at the same time it sees the team disband for a period, the originals reform and probably the largest single influx of members a team has ever known. At its heart is the long running question over whether the "non-team" is a grouping of heroes who come together to protect the world from menaces or else a club of heroes with an open door policy. Historically it's clear that the former is Namor the Sub-Mariner's view of the Defenders whilst the latter is Nighthawk's. But the series works best with a core group of characters who want to be with each other and spend time together when they're not saving the world. There's room for other heroes to join them for adventures - and this volume sees the likes of Moondragon, the Wasp, Yellowjacket, the Black Panther and Daredevil all working alongside the team although Spider-Man's involvement is more clearly an accidental encounter - but at it's core are the regulars, the Hulk, Valkyrie, Nighthawk and Hellcat. That's not to say there aren't some other Defenders within these pages though.

The nature of the Defenders as a very loose association of heroes and Nighthawk's problems leading them are both explored to the fullest extent in issues #62 to #64 which contain the "Defenders for a day" storyline. Dollar Bill produces a documentary about the team that includes their address and a declaration that anyone can be a Defender simply by declaring themselves so. The next day this is put to severe test as Nighthawk steps outside to meet new recruits Black Goliath, Captain Marvel, Captain Ultra, Falcon, Havok, Hercules, Iron Fist, Jack of Hearts, Marvel Man (later known as Quasar), Ms. Marvel, Nova, Paladin, Polaris, Prowler, the Son of Satan, Stingray, Tagak, Torpedo and the White Tiger. It's possibly the single largest membership expansion of any established team in the history of superhero comics. But it also exposes the mess that can come with such a loose set up as the new heroes start messing about with each other, try to impose Hercules as the team's leader and decide to attack the Hulk without realising just how important the Defenders are to keeping him calm. Then things get worse as Iron Man drops by to announce that a whole load of villains have also declared themselves Defenders and are causing chaos in New York. Nighthawk's Defenders split into multiple teams to tackle the rival group, consisting of Batroc, the Beetle, the Blob, Boomerang, Electro, Joe the Gorilla, Leap-Frog, Libra, the Looter, the Melter, Pecos, Plantman, Porcupine, Sagittarius, the Shocker, the Toad and Whirlwind, but the results just add to the chaos. It rapidly becomes clear that there are too many heroes to be able to effectively work together and the new members all quickly decide to leave. The whole thing stands as a good exposure of many of the spare and lesser heroes in the Marvel universe at this time but also demonstrates how many of them just aren't able to fit into any team at random. I don't know if the heroes featured reflect any demands in the contemporary letters page but it wouldn't surprise me if the whole storyline was a rejoinder to those who believe a non-team can literally include absolutely anyone for no particular reason and show why some of the heroes just can't work well with the regular membership. It also shows the mess of loose organisations that allow anyone to proclaim themselves a member without any process of approval or verification. Maybe this was a subtle dig at certain real life groups who seek various organisational protections and benefits whilst allowing anybody at all to access them, with the result that chaos can ensue as they exercise these rights.

Much of the rest of the volume follows a similar pattern of somewhat oddball adventures against some bizarre foes. It kicks off with a continuation of the low key battle with Lunatik, initially presented as a vigilante killer but subsequently revealed to be multiple beings who are the fragmented parts of Arisen Tyrk, the banished ruler of another dimension from the Man-Wolf stories, now serving the Unnameable. The role of mad killer is taken over by the Foolkiller, this being the second one from the pages of Omega the Unknown after the original appeared and died in Man-Thing. This is followed up by the wrapping up of threads from Omega's series but it feels very confusing if one hadn't been reading that title and so it's just a confrontation with some aliens and a lot of flashbacks, plus Moondragon getting angry with the Defenders over the way they handle the situation. Elsewhere Doctor Strange assembles the original Defenders, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, to journey to Tunnel World to deal with the threat of the Unnameable and his minions, commanded by the humanoid buzzard Ytitnedion. Meanwhile back on Earth the other Defenders encounter first the Mutant Force, a set of old Captain America foes, and then the all female Fem-Force, working for Daredevil's old foe the Mandrill. There's also a return of the Omegatron where a man has somehow become lied to it to become the Anything Man. Tensions flare between Atlantis and Wakanda due to the intervention of a rogue Wakandan stealing technology and selling it on behalf of the Mandrill, leading to a rematch with Fem-Force.

Early on Valkyrie gets some interesting material as she is taken back to Asgard to take part in a war in the afterlife realm of Valhalla between the Norse god of death, Hela, and Ollerus the Unmerciful. In the process Valkyrie comes up against her own body animated by the soul of Barbara Norris, who kills the other Defenders to bring their souls to the afterlife. Eventually Hela banishes the invaders and restores the Defenders to life but the story adds to the confusion and mess with Valkyrie that it's unclear just how much of a past she actually has whilst she is still occupying the body of another woman despite one of her own existing and no opportunity is taken to put her back in her own body. Later she briefly leads the Defenders in Nighthawk's absence against the Foolkiller but the result is the destruction of the riding academy and the disbandment of the team, though this ultimately proves only temporary.

Hellcat gets mixed developments with some abilities little used and even phased out whilst there are some appearances from her past from before her days in the superhero community. Noticeably little used is her Shadowcloak despite its potential to boost her abilities and provide key protection at critical moments. Maybe it's just because of the black and white but there are times when she's wearing it and so similar to Batgirl that I'd be amazed if someone didn't start getting copyright jitters. Her mental powers are also little used except for an accidental discharge that hurts ally as much as foe and drives off a number of the "Defenders for a day" recruits. Later on Moondragon absorbs them out of necessity when injured in battle, leaving Hellcat with her acrobatic skills and her convoluted past. It becomes clear that she's trying to avoid it, with a letter from Millie the Model taking a while to reach her. Later on we find out that she's been avoiding her mother for a long time and they don't reconcile before the latter's death. After the funeral we learn how the Patsy Walker comics were a fiction-within-fiction created by her mother who sheltered the real Patsy from the world. Many a real life child star endured an awkward childhood with their parents more concerned to display them and maximise the returns rather than helping them develop properly and Patsy seems to have similarly suffered, which probably explains her woman-child light hearted approach to the world. The recasting of her comedy and soap era also allows for alterations to those around her, with Buzz Baxter now her jerk of an husband whilst the age gap between Patsy and Millie has noticeably widened since their encounters in the 1960s, with the latter now a friend of Patsy's mother and head of her own modelling agency. Millie's guest appearance is a reminder of how many of us move on in life and looks back on hopes and ambitions, whilst some, like Patsy, are left contemplating the future.

There are other threads that go nowhere. Early on there's a subplot in the Soviet Union as the Red Guardian and the Presence battle a giant amoeba but after defeating it they decide to live together and it isn't followed up on; with no interaction with the rest of the title it just feels like an unfinished idea. This may, however, be down to a change in writers.

This volume encompasses the entirety of Ed Hannigan's run. And the whole thing is a rather stumbling mess. Plotlines drag on for ages, particularly one about Nighthawk being investigated by the FBI for a number of alleged personal and corporate offences, with the result that on more than one occasion he is barred from operating in his costumed identity. The precise charges are never made clear and by the final issue the whole thing has got no further than a bail hearing. Tax and corporate cases in the real world may well drag out for years before ever reaching a courtroom, but it doesn't make for especially good drama. Worse still there's no real indication as to why he is now being investigated or whether some foe is behind it all. It's as though Hannigan had no idea where he was going with the storyline and so just dragged it out for as long as possible until something could be done with it. Eventually the court appearance coincides with an attack by the Mandril and an extended appearance by Daredevil but it's impossible to believe that this had been the plan all along. There are also odd moments such as the Hulk's encounter with a beached whale that he returns to the sea complete with the address for Greenpeace in one of the most blatant pieces of campaigning yet seen in a regular comic book, though it's followed up in a later issue when the Defenders save a herd of whales from Russian whalers.

Overall this volume is a complete disappointment. Other than the "Defenders for a day" there are no particular striking stories and much of the book is an endless search for direction. Too many of the foes are rather abstract and make for not very understandable threats, compounded by the growing gulf in focuses between Doctor Strange and Nighthawk. There are too many plotlines that either ramble on forever or just get forgotten about and the overall result is just a dull mess.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 3

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 3 consists of issues #50 to #70 of the regular series and #1 to #4 of Tomb of Dracula Magazine. Almost everything is written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Gene Colan bar one issue of the Magazine which is written by Roger McKenzie and another which is drawn by Steve Ditko.

The volume opens with a fairly well known encounter with the Silver Surfer as he gets caught up in the internal machinations of the satanic cult that Dracula now heads. It's all rather underwhelming and certainly not the great classic of legend, an early warning sign that perhaps Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan are starting to run out of creative energy. This feeling persists through the next several issues as other elements are hurried through such as the quick dismissal of Blade's doppelganger but fortunately there's a distinct upturn as the series heads towards its climax.

There are a few other guest appearances on the way with mixed impacts. Topaz, from the Werewolf by Night series, pops up as a tool of a very particular foe who wants Dracula lured to a special location. Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan shows up for an issue in order to resurrect Blade and free him from his doppelganger. Hellstrom doesn't hang around for the final showdown with Deacon Frost after which both Blade and Hannibal King broadly depart from the series with their mission of vengeance complete, though Blade shows up later in an issue that feels like it's a standby fill-in as Blade and Musenda reunite to save a woman from an odd curse that links her to a vampire, alternating between day and night. Also reaching completion is Harold H. Harold as he finishes his novel about Dracula, which is also adapted as a play and, potentially, a film, and he finally gets to go on a date with Aurora. He later appears at a showing of the play having convinced an actress he can get her a part in the film but Dracula is also in the audience and it doesn't go well for Harold.

One of the key themes of the volume is religion, with Dracula's position as head a satanic cult leading to encounters with both those from below and those from above. Early on, a mysterious being confronts Dracula only to die in the event but his spirit rises and it becomes clear he is connected to Christ via a portrait with glowing eyes. It's a very bold move to all but explicitly say that Dracula has encountered an angel, but it's also one that makes perfect sense given the power Christian artefacts have in vampire mythology. Later on, Dracula's son Janus is resurrected and artificially accelerated in age to that of a young man through fusion with the angel's spirit. And this leads to a confrontation that fuses both of the biggest themes.

The other big theme of the run is that of families, although there isn't much exploration of the most prominent direct relationship between Dracula and his descendant Frank Drake. Instead the emphasis at one end is on Rachel van Helsing and her relationship with Quincy Harker, as her father figure suffers a succession of heart attacks and becomes ever more desperate to complete his mission before his health finally gives out. Meanwhile Dracula is almost domesticated, now married to the cultist Domini and seeing a son, named Janus, born on the night of December 24th. In a display of a story element I have never liked in comics published at Christmas, Janus's birth brings peace and goodwill to the vicinity, causing the immediate fighting to end and foes to let one another go. Janus also brings joy and peace to both his parents, who reflect upon their pasts of loneliness and awkward relationships with the rest of their families. But families come in many forms and not all relationships are in good form. Dracula has a further encounter with his daughter Lilith but she will do nothing to help him in his most desperate hour. The Church of the Damned cult is another form of family but one with internal hatreds as Anton Lupeski plots to overthrow and destroy Dracula, now that the birth of a son means the vampire is no longer needed. In the showdown tragedy strikes when Dracula evades the bullet and it instead kills Janus. Lupeski is soon disposed of but Domini calls an end to the immediate violence, channelling the painting of Christ. Subsequently she performs a ritual that resurrects Janus in fusion with the dead angel's spirit, and the result is a young man torn between filial duty and a destiny to kill Dracula.

This leads to confrontations between father and son but before long both are lured to a strange recreation of a Roman arena, along with both Frank Drake and Topaz, where a demon tries to get Dracula and Janus to fight to the death but fails and they instead turn on the demon. Dracula then finds himself transported to Hell where they encounter Satan himself. Satan toys with Dracula, turning him into a human once more and casting him back into the world where both he and the vampire hunters now face a very different set of circumstances and morality. He now wanders the Earth discovering he now has the all too mortal concerns of money, food and injury to cope with whilst they must question whether they can kill a human man who is no longer a threat. But there's one hunter known as the Cowboy for whom the answer is clear-cut. Dracula continues on a quest to be restored to vampiredom, but is spurned by the only vampire he deems worthy to transform him, Lilith. Dracula then turns to Janus and persuades his son to send him to the one place where he might find restoration, Transylvania. But here too he finds rejection as his subjects and vampires now serve a new master, Torgo, and reject Dracula for having turned his back on the old ways. In turn Dracula is forced to embrace his foes even more as he turns to God for help and crucifixes for protection, but it's all the manipulation of Satan who has done all this to break him. Dracula is restored to vampire form as the climax of the series looms.

The finale sees Dracula confront Torgo, who was transformed into a vampire by the same woman as Dracula, leading to a battle to reclaim lordship over the vampires. But it's a hollow victory as Dracula contemplates just what it is he rules over and then comes the real showdown. Quincy Harker is dying and confronts Dracula one final time in the castle in Transylvania in vengeance for his wife and daughter. It's a dramatic climax to the series and Quincy is the natural choice for the final battle; however there's a loophole left open when explosives in Quincy's wheelchair detonate before he can take the correct ritual steps to destroy the corpse. All that is left is for Quincy's final letter to help Rachel rediscover herself, whilst Janus is unmerged from the angel and restored to infant form. The series ends with a look back at the man that Dracula was.

This is one of the rare cases from the era when a title was given enough warning to enable it to wrap up the story within its own pages; imagine the awkwardness if such an intense and involved conclusion had to be rush packed into a single issue of Marvel Two-in-One. There's a real sense of closure as Dracula is restored to his former glory just in time for the final showdown, whilst hope for the future is left with the surviving cast members. If the story of Marvel's Dracula had ended here it would have gone out on a truly spectacular high. However it turns out this wasn't quite the ending of the title that it at first seems but rather a clearing of the deck for a change in format.

The switch to a black and white magazine format is a surprise; it seems there was another attempt by Marvel to drive into the horror magazine format. If the colour comic was cancelled for this reason then it was in vain. The four magazines reproduced here (minus some back-up stories not featuring Dracula) just show a rambling chaos as Dracula is once more revived in a confusing tale of magic and gets caught up in a mixture of tales that owe more to Lovecraftian monster horror or the film The Exorcist than to the traditional gothic tales. Nor does the classic creative team survive long. Issue #2 is drawn by Steve Ditko but his style is just all wrong for the mush mash of content, being far too traditional cartoony for a tale of Satanists, demonic possession, a monster impregnating an innocent woman and her brother becoming an incubus, draining the life forces of others and turning into a visual link to a psychedelic dimension. Another story tells of a woman surviving having her blood drained by Dracula and later giving birth, only for her daughter to somehow remotely drain Dracula's blood supply and act like she is possessed. A back up is told in the pictures and text caption format from the perspective of an art dealer as he relates how a promising young artist full of hope and optimism was drastically changed by an encounter with Dracula. Although there are some recurring themes of women being twisted and broken, there is no clear direction with the group of vampire hunters now separated and scattered and only a brief appearance by Inspector Chelm of Scotland Yard to even hint at any recurring adversaries for Dracula. And then after three issues Wolfman leaves the title. His immediate successor is Roger McKenzie who goes back to the gothic roots of the character but at the expense of chronology by telling a tale of Dracula preying on a family living in a lighthouse in the early twentieth century. Although the magazine continued beyond this volume, the material here just shows a great waste of an opportunity as the title stumbles around with no clear identity or direction. Wolfman had had an incredible run on the colour comic, writing no less than sixty-four consecutive issues without interruption and giving it a strong identity and direction, so it's a pity that his final stories are such a forgettable mess. Colan's achievement of drawing all seventy issues is even more impressive and so it's a shame that for whatever reason the magazine stories weren't all drawn by him or that the alternative art just wasn't suitable for the series's style.

Ideally this volume would have ended with the end of the colour comic and left the magazines for another day. Or else Wolfman and Colan would have left the character at this stage and gone out on a high. This would have left this third volume as a return to greatness, overcoming the turgidness both in the earliest issues here and in the second volume, and restoring the series to a high point in time for the climax. Unfortunately the magazine stories undo all this good work, see the character resurrected all too quickly, Wolfman leaving at a bad low and the volume itself ending midflow. Normally the Essentials are constrained by page lengths that give limited manoeuvre for choosing end points but the first three volumes came out in the space of barely eleven months and it should have been possible to pace them so that the third ended with the end of the comic and kept the magazines back for the fourth. Instead the end of this volumes just crashes down after all the good that came before it.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Essential Moon Knight volume 3

Essential Moon Knight volume 3 contains issues #31 to #38 of his original series, all six issues of the brief series Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu plus material from Marvel Fanfare #30, #38 & #39, Solo Avengers #3 and Marvel Super-Heroes #1. Most of these series are self-explanatory but Solo Avengers (later retitled Avengers Spotlight) was an anthology highlighting individual team members past and present with Hawkeye holding a regular slot in most issues. The writing on the original series is by Doug Moench, Tony Isabella and Alan Zelenetz with one back-up by Steve Ringgenberg. The art is a mixture of Kevin Nowlan, Bo Hampton, Mike Hernandez, Marc Silvestri, Richard Howell, Bob McLeod and Bill Sienkiewicz. The Fist of Khonshu series is written by Alan Zelenetz, Mary Jo Duffy and Jim Owsley and mainly drawn by Chris Warner with the final issue by Mark Beachum. The Marvel Fanfare stories are written by Ann Nocenti, Mary Jo Duffy and Mike Carlin and drawn by Brent Anderson, Judith Hunt and Bill Reinhold. The Solo Avengers tale is written by Roger Stern and drawn by Bob Hall. The Marvel Super-Heroes tale is written by Robert M. Ingersoll and drawn by Mike Gustovich. The separate labels post is here.

This volume covers seven years of the character's solo stories from the last days of his original series until just before the launch of his third series. Complicating things further it's not clear if the stories from Marvel Fanfare and Marvel Super-Heroes were one-off pieces commissioned for those books or else material prepared earlier and rescued from the inventory pile with perhaps some additional work to complete them. The Solo Avengers story appears to have been an original commission as much of that series was but the Marvel Super-Heroes story may have also been commissioned for Solo Avengers and not used for whatever reason. The Marvel Fanfare issues are the most confusing because they appear to be set during the original series's run, whether as a consequence of being inventory material or a deliberate decision to tell a story set retroactively, but are here placed after the second series and so add to the confusion about the status quo.

Part of the mess seems to stem from publishing decisions rather than creative ones. Unusually the original series including single page editorials by Denny O'Neil (apart from issue #35 where it's by Linda Grant as part of Assistant Editors' Month) and equally unusually these have been included in this volume. Consequently the modern reader is informed that the series was normally only available in the direct market comics shops and that from issue #32 onwards the series and indeed all direct market only books would now be published bimonthly as a result of a decision from somewhere higher up in Marvel (O'Neil humorously identifies the decision maker sending down this decree as "The-Computer-Which-Dares-Not-Speak-Its-Name", and makes clear that he doesn't like this new rule). Issue #35 is double-sized and was made available on the newsstands, presumably as a test to see if there was still an audience on the newsstands that hadn't been able to migrate to comic shops though I don't know if Marvel's other direct market only titles also undertook such experiments. Finally with issue #38 the book was cancelled to be replaced by a new series that would be available both on the newsstands and also in the direct market, with O'Neil promising it would appear "within a couple of months". Around the same time Micronauts, another bimonthly direct market only book was similarly cancelled and replaced with the monthly, available everywhere Micronauts: The New Voyages after just a couple of months, though Ka-Zar the Savage was cancelled outright, as though Marvel was now backtracking on the direct market only option (at least for the time being) and indeed O'Neil's comments in the editorial in issue #37 admit to second thoughts on the matter. But for whatever reason it took rather longer for the new Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu series to appear, eventually showing up eleven months after the old one ended. And then it ended after just six months.

One result of this is a high turnover of creative staff. The only thing approaching an extended run is Alan Zelenetz writing the last three issues of the original series and then the first four of the Fist of Khonshu but the eleven month gap makes it hard to consider the two as a single seven issue run. Chris Warner draws the first five issues of Fist of Khonshu but otherwise no artist draws more than three issues consecutively. So even before the volume reaches the wilderness years at the end the whole thing is exceptionally bitty, with successive creators all pulling in their own different directions and some very different takes on the character being offered.

The end of the original series largely focuses upon the urban crime fighter aspect of the character with a succession of tales that primarily focus upon the characters subject to the environment. There's a tale of a rundown street where a pawnbroker tries to stand up to the gangs demanding protection money and reaches out to one young recruit, only for tragedy to erupt. There's an encounter with insane environmentalists who want to use a new gas to wipe out the human race and allow the planet to begin anew. There's a tale of a man dying of cancer with an uncaring doctor more interested in his coffee and the man's brother resorts to bringing a gun into the hospital. A reporter seeking to explode urban myths shows up a man as just a local thug and he responds by trying to explode the myth in a different way. A gang hangs out at a warehouse storing a nasty chemical substance that unleashes primal violence, causing Moon Knight to flashback to a previous encounter with the substance and Gena of the diner to become a fearful recluse in her own business.

There's a brief backup story in issue #34 narrated by Moon Knight's confidante Crawley that speedily reintroduces all the supporting cast, presumably an attempt by incoming regular writer Tony Isabella to show his grasp of the series but as he only does one more issue this leaves "The Vault of Knight" as a mere curiosity. It might have better to run it in the following issue as this was an attempt to build a wider audience on the newsstands and an introduction/reminder piece would have been a good way to help build readership. The tale is a mini-epic as Moon Knight gets crippled with a fight with the Fly, normally one of the lamer recurring Spider-Man villains, and he has to recover his movement in time to stop Bora, a frustrated over-tall would-be ballet dancer who now uses her mutant psionic powers for revenge. The story includes guest appearances by both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four but they mainly perform crowd control in a showdown at a ballet performance.

Alan Zelenetz's arrival sees a shift in the series's focus away from the urban crime fighter and more into magical territory. His first issue sees a team-up with Doctor Strange when Marlene is possessed by the spirit of Amutef, an Ancient Egyptian sorcerer, with a sceptical Moon Knight slowly coming to accept the forces around him. The final two issues of the original series tell of the death of Moon Knight's estranged Rabbi father amidst a wave of anti-Semitic violence and the body is stolen by the magician Zohar who is seeking to obtain occult powers. It's one of the only stories to really use Moon Knight's history to develop the character rather than just to provide a source of previous encounters.

And then comes the big interruption and the gutting of the character's world.

When the character returns in Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu, massive changes have been made. The character has ditched the Steven Grant and Jake Lockley identities and is now living openly as Marc Spector albeit in the mansion and lifestyle associated with Grant. Supporting characters like Gena and Crawley have vanished, with Frenchie reduced to a cameo. Marc is trying to ditch the Moon Knight identity as well and auctions off the statue of Khonshu. However agents of Khonshu's rival Anubis obtain the statue and so the spirits of priests of Khonshu force Marc to retrieve it. In the process he defeats Anubis and returns to the Moon Knight identity in a modified costume, although as most of the changes involve colour the main change seen here is the replacement of the moon's crescent with an ankh. Marlene is angry with Marc's return to the role and walks out on him. Marc continues in the role and finds his strength is now enhanced at night but now the priests regularly invading his thoughts and forcing him to carry out tasks in spite of his own concerns as he is ever more the "Fist of Khonshu".

The first issue may introduce the character for a new and returning audience but otherwise it's a disastrous opening that ditches much of the best parts of the set-up in favour of Egyptian mysticism and pulp adventure. Subsequent issues slowly try to return to the more successful arrangements but it's too little and too late. In the meantime the more fantastical adventures include a visit to Mexico where a mad scientist is recreating Nazi experiments in a base inside a pyramid, the return of the sleepless man Morpheus, and two brothers who kill children to prolong their lives but now face a trio of Indian assassins. On a smaller scale is the man who has taken on the identity of Bluebeard and kidnapped multiple women using neuron rays to make them obey him, and drug pushing cannibal cult on an island in the south Caribbean. It is little surprise this series bombed so quickly. Moon Knight works best as an urban gritty crime fighter and not as a globe trotting adventurer. The absence of most of his supporting cast with no real replacements also hinders the series and attempts to develop a subplot of Marlene returning to her ex-husband, who is now in a wheelchair, just don't go anywhere.

Nestling at the end of the volume are five further stories from various anthologies but it's unclear just when most of them were originally written or are meant to be set, though Moon Knight is sporting a crescent in all of them. The first is a full length tale as Steven and Marlene (together without comment) visit a small town where nearby a film is being shot and killing deer in the process. This brings forth a vengeful spirit of nature. Next up is a tale that sees Frenchie fully back but the priests still pestering Marc as he investigates the connection between a talentless boy band and the sudden appearance of old people claiming they have suddenly aged. Following that we get a tale of Jake picking up a man disguised in an Arab keffiyeh in his cab who goes on to terrorise the United Nations. At the story's end Jake succumbs to casual racism and refuses to pick up another Arab in a keffiyeh. Each of these stories feels like they were written for one of the ongoing series but never got used, and it might have been better to have placed them here in the originally intended locations.

The Solo Avengers story is clearly original and brings Moon Knight into conflict with the Shroud, Master of Darkness. Both characters have strong elements of Batman about them and it's surprising that it took so long to bring the two together, even if it is for only half an issue. The final story, from Marvel Super-Heroes #1, feels like it was also prepared for Solo Avengers but not used in favour of a new Moon Knight series. It sees Moon Knight battle the Raptor, a forgettable one-off villain like so many in Solo Avengers, and also visit Gena, now managing a restaurant in Houston. It does its best in the pages available to provide a coda to the original supporting cast as well as establishing that Marc and Marlene are back together, thus undoing as much of the Fist of Khonshu damage as possible in the limited space available.

All in all this volume shows a once great character and series crashing into the mess of rapidly changing creative teams and a badly fumbled relaunch that steers in completely the wrong direction. There a few especially memorable stories with the villains mainly one-offs and much of the good and unique elements are needlessly jettisoned. This volume also suffers from presenting the inventory stories when they were published when it might have been better to follow the lead of other volumes and insert them into the original run at approximately the point they would have originally been used. In total this volume is best forgotten.

Essential Moon Knight volume 3 - creator labels

Yes this volume has a lot of creators so this is the standard extra post.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4 consists of issues #66 to #81 which concluded the original series plus later appearances in Amazing Spider-Man #274 and New Defenders #145 & the first few pages of #146. After the final issue of Michael Fleisher's run the rest of the series consists of runs written by Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatteis, with artist Bob Budiansky co-plotting a number of issues. Most of the art is by Bob Budiansky with early contributions by Don Perlin and Tom Sutton. The Amazing Spider-Man issue is scripted by Tom DeFalco and drawn by Ron Frenz while the New Defenders issues are written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Don Perlin and Luke McDonnell.

The final volume of the original Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider starts off with the series in a rather traditional fashion but then steadily builds up to deliver a bold conclusion to the run. But before it gets there it goes through a few routines. Michael Fleisher's run ends on a somewhat flat note as the carnival is attacked by a witch's spirit. There's then a fill-in by future writer J.M. DeMatteis in which Johnny fights a group of small town thugs and encounters a woman who has withdrawn from life in bitterness over her daughter's death but comes to help due to the intervention of her daughter's spirit. This mix of wandering through small time thugs and spirits had dominated the series for quite some time now but over the last two runs we get some more developed ideas that also make good use of the supporting cast in the carnival.

Issue #68, which also provides the striking cover to the issues, includes a retelling of the origin for the first time in a while. Told via the device of Johnny going into a church confession booth, it sees a number of minor additions to tidy over some of the more awkward bits such as establishing that Johnny had an interest in the occult before he made his infamous pact or that Roxanne Simpson learned of his promise to his dying adoptive mother and did not think him a coward. And although the being he made his pact with is still called "the Devil", Johnny says "Don't be so shocked, Father. It wasn't the Devil you warn kids about in Sunday School -- though, as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been." It's the first noticeable step away from identifying "that devil-thing" as the traditional Satan from Christianity. However it's not until issue #73 when the Ghost Rider is talking to Johnny within his mind that the name "Mephisto" is first used (overlooking the inventory story from Marvel Super-Heroes that was reprinted in volume 3), presumably as part of a general move to avoid depicting the Devil directly. Overall issue #68 is one of those origin retellings that manages to stay fresh, helped by a framing device as the Ghost Rider stops a priest killer who has come to rob the church, and makes for a strong debut for both Roger Stern and Bob Budiansky, the latter quickly establishing himself as one of the best artists the series has yet seen.

Stern's run may only last six issues but manages to pack a lot in. Following the origin retelling we get another small town tale as Johnny gets caught in the machinations of a romantic triangle of a flirt that leads one of her boyfriends to attack the carnival in a giant earth mover. There's then an attack by a swarm of deformed people who kidnap Jeremy, the carnival's freakish but gentle giant, and yet once their apparent master is overthrown Jeremy finds the attraction of an island where he is normal too good to reject. Another DeMatteis fill-in goes smoothly into the flow as Null the Living Darkness temporarily fuses with a teacher frustrated with his life. But the high point of Stern's run comes in his last two issues as Cork the Clown's son Eliot is revealed to be the Circus of Crime's Clown, trying to put his past behind him but lured back when his old comrades commit acts of sabotage and seriously injure his father. However Eliot is more devious and lures the Circus into a trap - but the Ghost Rider doesn't realise this and attacks the Clown with his hellfire. For the rest of the series Eliot is a hollow shell of himself, a reminder to Johnny of the horror within himself. This is also one of the best uses of the Circus, with the Ringmaster deliberately left in prison allowing the other characters to thrive and show how a talented performer like Eliot got drawn into crime in the first place. Overall Stern's brief period on the book has revitalised it but even better is still to come.

Many comic series have ended abruptly. Some get a rushed final issue or two that seek to provide a quick conclusion at the expense of many loose ends. Others just go out with a routine issue and only a brief acknowledgement of the series's ending in a closing caption or on the letters page. And there are those series that just stop abruptly mid story and no sense of a conclusion at all. Sometimes this would lead to another title being conscripted in order to provide a conclusion but sometimes the whole thing would be left up in the air with the planned final issues confined to file. (The 1990s Ghost Rider series was one of the worst of these with the scheduled final issue not even being printed and the story prepared for it didn't see the light of day for another decade. A generation earlier the original Ms. Marvel was another such case.)

But this Ghost Rider is much luckier. This is a series with a good conclusion that feels as though it was planned out. I'd be surprised if J.M. DeMatteis had actually been signed up for an entire eight issue run to end the series as that seems a rather long commitment but from the outset we get a steady building up of the mythology, both revisiting key elements whilst also adding to them. It's also notable that the series avoids the most obvious conclusion, which would be to have a showdown in Mephisto's realm that sees Johnny freed from the curse and escape to a happily ever after life. That precise story almost happens in issue #76, which is also the first to establish the Ghost Rider as a fully independent entity with a hitherto forgotten past and a name, Zarathos. As a contest between Mephisto and his rebellious underling Asmodeus, Zarathos has to win his freedom from Johnny by surviving a gauntlet in the underworld. However the ending comes with a twist as Johnny and Zarathos's determination to stop each other results in their being remerged as they leave Mephisto's realm. Had they continued to work together they could have peacefully walked through the portal together and arrived back in the world free of each other.

Other issues introduce Centurious, a long-lived man without a soul of his own who devours others', whilst the carnival is given its own climax as owner Ralph Quentin succumbs to the suggestions of Steel Wind, a female cyborg biker acting on behalf of the mysterious Freakmaster. Eventually we learn the Freakmaster is the vengeful son of two freaks abused by Quentin during his early years as a carnival owner. Now the son seeks to liberate freaks and perform drastic surgery on the Quentin carnival to turn the scales. Coming in a period when Johnny has one more than one occasion encountered images of his birth and adoptive parents it's a good contrast between the different ways filial duty has led to vengeance in different forms. Between this story and the Circus of Crime one most of the supporting cast get expanded and given a strong resolution to their stories. One who doesn't though is Cynthia Randolph, the journalist who has been travelling with the carnival for some considerable time as she researches an article about carnival life. The problem is that she seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time on this one project since the carnival has been shown moving between multiple venues and also there are indications that the series is occurring at something close to real time. Towards the end of the run she starts talking about using all her notes to produce a whole book and there are hints that she's also investigating Johnny's secrets, but ultimately nothing comes of it and she joins a long line of supporting characters who drift endlessly through multiple writers.

But the main emphasis in these final issues is on the conflict between Johnny and Zarathos, who has now regained his identity and memories due to the intervention of Nightmare. We learn of the demon's history of being awakened by a tribe and stealing souls that led him to conflict with Mephisto. The latter attacked through agents including a prince, subsequently revealed as Centurious, who resisted the power and led to Mephisto's triumph. Conflict between Johnny and the Ghost Rider has been present throughout much of the series's run but it now develops a new edge as we head to the conclusion. Also adding to the resolution is the return of Roxanne Simpson after a long absence. Now she seeks Johnny's help in dealing with the Sin Eater, a small town evangelical preacher who claims to consume people's sins but is actually stealing their souls for Centurious. In the final issue the Ghost Rider frees the town's people from Centurious's Crystal of Souls, trapping his foe there instead. But this denies Zarathos final vengeance; however the dying Sin Eater offers a way to send Zarathos into the Crystal, freeing Johnny in the process. But Johnny is unaware and resists, fighting to control the body... In a symbolic ending it's the intervention of Roxanne, whose feelings towards Johnny have been mixed due to their long separation, who now reaches out and makes Johnny surrender, allowing Zarathos to triumph and be dispatched to the Crystal. Johnny is now free and he and Roxanne ride off for a life together whilst the Crystal falls into the possession of Mephisto, making Zarathos his slave once more.

As conclusions to long running series go, this is one of the best. Roxanne's saving of Johnny mirrors the way she saved him from Mephisto's control back in the origin. Zarathos's history may be a recent addition but it feels a natural part of the cycle, allowing for a conclusion to an ancient run. And the final page of Johnny and Roxanne biking away with Mephisto holding the Crystal superimposed over them makes for an excellent last shot. The series has gone out on a true high.

As well as the end of the regular series we also get a further adventure for each half of the Ghost Rider. Unusually they're not printed in the original order of appearance, but given the second tale this seems appropriate. The first is Amazing Spider-Man #274, a special overlong issue with no adverts and also a crossover with Secret Wars II. In this story the all -powerful Beyonder is set to destroy the entire multiverse but agrees to a wager with Mephisto to delay this for twenty-four hours if his champion of life can prove mortals are worthy of existence. The Beyonder temporarily releases Zarathos to serve as his agent and get Spider-Man to renounce his sense of responsibility by refusing to prevent the assassination of the Kingpin. As a Spider-Man adventure this may be an usual scenario but it goes right to the heart of the character and his fundamental philosophy of life, also making it one of the best Secret Wars II crossovers. But Zarathos feels very out of character to the point that he didn't need to be used. For most of the protracted torment he is disguised as various dead characters in Spider-Man's life, and then goes for a direct attack in the form of a hooded avenger. Only briefly do we see him in anything like his traditional look (still minus the biker gear) and using his hellfire. Any demon could have filled his role in this story of temptation. It's a rather ignoble return of the demon.

The final material in the volume consists of New Defenders #145 and just the first six pages of #146. Taking place in the aftermath of a major Defenders battle these issues are mainly focused on character and organisational developments in the aftermath. It's in this context that Johnny and Roxanne turn up at the Defenders mansion, having detected the now passed danger, both to visit Johnny's old Champions comrades, Iceman and the Angel, and to ask the latter for a loan. The reason for only including the first six pages of #146 become clear as it's at this point Johnny and Roxanne say their farewells and department, with the Defenders commenting on their good fortune. Despite prominently featuring on #145's cover, Johnny isn't the main focus of these issues and at times the end of the volume feels to be detouring massively into the late era Defenders status quo. Nevertheless they serve as a nice little epilogue to the run. Johnny has now found peace and happiness and this gives a brief glimpse at his happily ever after days.

All in all this volume is a very strong conclusion to a series and character that it's been a delight to discover through the Essentials. The series has had its periods of formula and wandering before but here it takes the elements and enhances them, building up the mythologies of both sides of the character. Lasting well beyond the fads for both horror and motorcycle stunts, the ending of Ghost Rider shows how even the most faddish of concepts can be used for dramatic tales well beyond the fad they feed off. There are careful tweaks to the mythology and an honouring of the series's past that all make for a perfect ending.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Essential X-Men volume 6

Essential X-Men volume 6 comprises Uncanny X-Men #199 to #213 and Annual #9 plus New Mutants #46 and Special Edition #1, X-Factor #9 to #11, Thor #373 to #374 and Power Pack #27. Chris Claremont writes all the X-Men and New Mutants issues, Louise Simonson the X-Factor and Power Pack issues and Walter Simonson the Thor issues. The art on the regular X-Men issues is mainly by John Romita Jr with individual issues by Rick Leonardi, June Brigman, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bret Blevins and Alan Davis with the annual by Arthur Adams. The New Mutants regular edition is drawn by Jackson Guice and the Special Edition by Arthur Adams. The X-Factor issues are drawn by Terry Shoemaker and Walter Simonson, the Power Pack issue by Jon Bogdanove and the Thor issues by Sal Buscema. And yes, there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains material from three different crossovers and they represent almost the full spectrum of types. There's what is basically a crossover between annuals that amounts to just a couple of specials telling a combined story. There's a big event crossover based around a limited series with other titles just dipping in to the story for a short period. And there's a storyline told over several ongoing titles.

The annual is the second half of a crossover with the New Mutants Special Edition. This was originally planned as an annual but turned out to be so long it was instead put out in the deluxe format of the day. This avoided the problems of graphic novels as it wasn't too much more expensive than a regular annual, would be easier to find in later years and also reproduces well in black and white. Unfortunately, this extension now means that the second issue in the volume features a team of characters who are largely unfamiliar to the regular X-Men series and the story takes an age to wade through. Worse still it's placed after a dramatic issue ending as Magneto agrees to go to trial and even though the length of time it takes to set up a trial makes this the natural place for the story (and the trial issue shows the return to Earth) it still feels like an obstacle in the path of the story rather than a crucial step forward. The tale sees Loki allied with the Enchantress to seek revenge on Storm and the X-Men but instead Storm is currently with the holidaying New Mutants and so all are transported to Asgard. The Special Edition naturally focuses on the New Mutants in this different environment but whatever its merits as a New Mutants tale here it's just an extended character study of unfamiliar characters. The X-Men annual brings our regular cast into the story but for the most part they're just exploring Asgard and rescuing the New Mutants from the changes Loki and the Enchantress have brought. Storm is also transformed and given both a hammer and weather powers to take the place of the absent Thor as the new goddess of thunder. It's an intriguing idea but it isn't explored as fully as it could be, with Ororo one of many characters distorted by the magic around them. Other good points include the prospect of the New Mutants staying in Asgard where they are accepted rather than returning to a world that fears and hates them. But ultimately this doesn't really feel like an X-Men story but an intruder from another series. Beyond seeing Rachel publicly adopt the name "Phoenix", to Cyclops's displeasure, this is an entirely forgettable crossover in the way of the main narrative. The art is, however, highly effective, helped by having Arthur Adams draw both parts. There are even some fun pop culture references including Warlock's disguises as the Starship Enterprise and Hägar the Horrible.

Issues #202 & #203 are crossovers with the later stages of Secret Wars II. Crossover issues for this event can be mixed, ranging from the Beyonder merely passing through the events of a regular issue to an incoherent mess as he gets needlessly involved in ongoing storylines to something spectacular when the encounter is used to explore the regular characters in-depth in such unusual circumstances. Here we get a two-part story focused upon Rachel as she sets out to destroy the Beyonder who instead enhances her power and manipulates her into attempting to destroy the whole universe. The parallels with Jean's descent into all-powerful madness are all too clear, especially when Rachel nearly uses the M'Kraan crystal as her main instrument of destruction. Eventually she relents, realising she cannot sacrifice so many lives who are unaware of their situation. It's a strong character study of Rachel and a chance to bring redemption to the legacy of Phoenix at a time when other titles were resurrecting Jean Grey and decoupling her from the power. This is one of the best of the Secret Wars II crossovers.

The "Mutant Massacre" was the first big crossover between various mutant titles and various satellites; the latter consisting of those also written by various mutant writers. It's surprising to find the whole thing collected here (bar a rather detached Daredevil issue) as the X-Men and X-Factor are kept apart throughout this volume and Essential X-Factor volume 1, which was released the same year, only the X-Factor side of the crossover is included. We also get an early example of the mess that can come when crossovers try to show the same even from different angles as a scene where Magneto and X-Factor spot each other outside the Hellfire Club has noticeably different dialogue in each series. The event itself is rather unsatisfying as a group of killers called the Marauders make their way into the Morlocks' tunnels under New York City and start killing the mutant residents. No clear reason is given for the action at this stage and the Marauders are mainly a set of previously unseen mutants, including Arclight, Blockbuster, Harpoon, Malice, Prism, Riptide, Scalphunter and Scrambler. They do, however, also include Vertigo and Sabretooth. The actual victims of the attack are surprisingly less than the story implies, largely amounting to just one established character, Annalee, and a whole bunch of background extras and one-offs created just to be killed off here. All the other established Morlocks are shown escaping, though some may now end up in one new home or another. As an event it's rather tame in the broader impact on the world. But as a character piece this is a desperate time. Few of the heroes who go into the tunnels emerge unscathed and by the story's end Nightcrawler, Colossus and Shadowcat are all incapacitated in one way or another whilst Storm undergoes a crisis of confidence. And the story introduces the conflict between Wolverine and his best-known foe, Sabretooth.

The Wolverine/Sabretooth conflict has become such a core part of both characters that it's extraordinary to realise that both had been around for about a decade before they were first shown fighting together. It seems the problem was that Sabretooth was deemed an Iron Fist villain and thus unavailable to Chris Claremont after he left that character's series, but with Power Man and Iron Fist having come to an end only a few months earlier it was now possible to transfer Sabretooth over to X-Men. The series doesn't waste time in throwing the two foes against each other twice in as many issues and dropping hints about a longstanding enmity between them. Neither character's full history has been detailed, leaving many mysteries to be addressed another time, but it seems we have a conflict between a hero and a distorted reflection of himself. Given the little we do know about Wolverine's past we have perhaps the conflict between a tamed savage and an untamed one, showing the very different route Wolverine could have taken.

Another Wolverine conflict appearing in the X-Men titles for the first time here is that with Lady Deathstrike, previously seen in Alpha Flight and, in her pre-cyborg form of Yuriko, in Daredevil and other titles. However despite Yuriko's body being transformed by Spiral as, presumably, part of her ongoing plans, the issue (#205) feels like an emergency filler, as does its immediate predecessor where Nightcrawler rescues a young woman from Arcade's complex only to discover she's unknowingly the heir to a European throne. She's written out so quickly it's as though plans were made and rapidly ditched.

The issues in this run are from the era when the X-Men titles grew into a clear franchise with the launch of a third title, X-Factor, as well as continuing to feed elements between X-Men and New Mutants. Both throw up a few problems within this volume. Although the New Mutants are usually introduced when they appear it can at times be confusing to know what's going on over in their title that feeds into this one. In particular Magneto seems to spend most of his time as the school's new headmaster over there rather than here, reducing the impact of his now working with his old foes. More problematically Betsy Braddock seems to just appear in the mansion from nowhere and has presumably been imported from the UK Captain Britain stories via the New Mutants. The "Mutant Massacre" sees her demonstrating her telepathic abilities and courage to the point where the very last page in the book shows her being welcomed to the team under the name Psylocke, but it would have been less jarring if there had been some explanation as to where she's come from and what she's doing in the mansion.

The biggest impact in the long term comes from the launch of X-Factor. Issue #201 represents X-Men's contribution to the heavy lifting required to set up that series as Cyclops is written out abruptly. At the same time he has to face now being a father himself but also the loss of his main father figure as Professor X is stuck in deep space with Lilandra and the Starjammers. He feels his family pulling in direction but the team in another, a situation made worse by his apparent lack of interest in keeping in contact with Madelyne whilst he was in Paris for Magneto's trial. Finally Storm forces the issue by challenging Cyclops to a duel for the leadership and surprisingly wins. This proves the impetus for his departure but the whole thing feels forced, trying to simultaneously extract Scott from both the team and his family and support his characterisation in the new series. It makes the newly born baby boy (so far unnamed) suddenly feel surplus to requirements along with Madelyne. The whole thing all feels very sudden and forced, as later interviews have confirmed that X-Factor was created by editorial dictat. Also complicating this series is the publicity campaign in the early issues of X-Factor that inadvertently ramps up anti-mutant tensions.

The other main loose end with Scott concerns Rachel as it's never established if he's deduced that she is his daughter from an alternate timeline. Also, in light of the retcon that set-up X-Factor, it's never made clear just who her mother actually was - the real Jean or the Phoenix entity that impersonated her? Rachel is succumbing to doubts, fears and revenge leading her to go on a rampage that nearly has her killing the villain Selene until Wolverine intervenes and stabs Rachel. It's a shocking moment but seemingly the only way to prevent the Phoenix menace taking off once more. Rachel survives but is alienated from the X-Men and succumbs to the lures of Spiral.

The dark world that Rachel comes from seems to be getting ever closer in many different ways. Early on we see other mutants starting to work for the government as mutant hunters when Mystique negotiates for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to become the government sanctioned agency Freedom Force, complete with provisional pardons for all its members. Meanwhile Magneto's alliance with the X-Men takes some big steps forward as he surrenders himself for trial before an international court and then after the trial is derailed by terrorist attacks he accepts Xavier's request to take his place as headmaster as Xavier goes off into space to be healed from his recent injuries. It's a bold step forward though as noted above Magneto is featured less in the volume than one might expect though he is shown mulling over an offer of a rank within the Hellfire Club as an alliance between the Club and the X-Men; however this doesn't seem to go anywhere here. Nevertheless it's a sign of how the X-Men's world is twisting into an ever-darker environment in which the "baddies" are now either on the "good" side or the side of authority - and the two are not always the same. Meanwhile Professor X, hitherto the guiding light of the team, finds himself accidentally lost in space when the Starjammers' ship is unable to return to Earth.

This is actually quite a bleak run for the series, breaking down traditional assumptions and instead presenting a dark world where sides are now far more blurred and death is ever closer. The reformation of Magneto is seemingly complete and his replacing Xavier is a dramatic step but one that has been carefully built up to. Less well handled are some issues in the middle of the run with the rapid writing out of Cyclops and the starting then stopping of the story of Nightcrawler's new friend. The two big crossovers covered here provide some strong character moments for the series but overall the "Mutant Massacre" is based on a rather thin premise that makes it less than stellar. Also underwhelming for its length is the annual Asgard crossover due to the excessive time devoted to the unfamiliar to here New Mutants at a critical stage in the book. Overall the result is a somewhat mixed run.

Essential X-Men volume 6 - creator labels

Yes this volume has a lot of creators so this is the standard extra post.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4 is made up of issues #30-56 plus Man-Thing (volume 2) #4 and a story from Chamber of Chills #4. The writing is mainly by Roger Stern and Chris Claremont with contributions by Don McGregor, Ralph Macchio, Bill Kunkel, David Michelinie and J.M DeMatteis. The art is mostly by Tom Sutton, Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers with contributions by Ricardo Villamonte, Alan Kupperberg, Kerry Gammill, Paul Smith, Brent Anderson and Michael Golden. The Man-Thing issue is written by Claremont and drawn by Don Perlin whilst the Chamber of Chills story is written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Howard Chaykin. And yes, a separate post is needed for some of the labels. A bonus is a 1981 house ad for the series announcing the creative team as Roger Stern and Frank Miller but the latter doesn't seem to have made it to the title.

As always this is a difficult series to write and generate excitement about. There have been periods in the character's history when a creator has successfully grasped Doctor Strange and managed to make the elements work in such a way to produce a grand tapestry that has a real buzz to it. And there are other periods when the title wanders from writer to writer in a search for something to do. Unfortunately this volume exclusively covers the latter period. Both Roger Stern and Chris Claremont are highly successful writers with much acclaim for their work elsewhere, yet here they join the long list of creators who have tried and failed with the character. It's a wonder that this series lasted so long, especially considering it was bimonthly for the entire of the period covered here (and would stay so for the rest of the title's run, lasting long enough to generate the contents for a fifth volume). Some of the art is quite spectacular, and the reproduction is especially sharp, particularly in reproducing nuanced greys that help to distinguish astral forms from the solid. But the overall narrative is dull and so consequently this is the weakest of all the Doctor Strange Essentials if not one of the dullest in the whole Essential series.

That's not to say there aren't attempts to build something big, starting with a protracted saga involving the Dweller in Darkness that brings in some new lesser villains such as the mystic Alaric and the Dream Weaver, as well as pre-existing foes such as Ningal and D'Spayre. There's also a team-up with Namor the Sub-Mariner and another with the adventurer Murdoch Adams, whose sole previous appearance in Chamber of Chills is reprinted here in order to establish both him and his longstanding foe, the demon Ludi. The ending is awkward with the Dweller declaring victory as he has succeeded in making Doctor Strange doubt his abilities. It might have been followed up on but the arrival of a new writer immediately takes the series in a different direction.

One storyline sees Baron Mordo return as he seeks to destroy the Earth by opening Chaos Gates near the Nexus of All Realities located in the Florida swamps. En route he turns Stephen's old colleague Julian Phyffe into Azrael, a demon with the power to rapidly age people and things to death. The story leads to a crossover with Man-Thing, who sacrifices his chance of being restored by Mordo to human form to save the day and not even Stephen's magic can deliver the deserved reward. Meanwhile Clea and Wong have been captured and taken to another dimension populated by barbarians and wizards where Wong's ancestor's actions have led to the state of this world, including the transformation of the Princess Shialmar into the Shadowqueen. It's a tale of longstanding vengeance that helps to add to Wong's character but it's also a trip into the realm of sword and sorcery long after the fad had passed.

There are some lighter tales as well, including one in which Doctor Strange has to handle a nosy journalist who soon learns the importance of Stephen's work or an encounter with a demon at a highly traditionalist North Carolina university founded by the man who captured a bell that could summon the demon. The result sees a shattering of the traditionalist policies as the students start challenging them. Doctor Strange also teams up with Brother Voodoo to free the latter's brother's spirit from Damballah; the adventure also serves to underline the differences between the two heroes.

The volume sees Clea go through a cycle of uncertainty and doubt to advancement and optimism about her position with Stephen. Their relationship is developing strongly but she is unsure about her effectiveness as a disciple, often needing to be rescued by him. And her doubts are not helped by the return of various women from his past including Victoria Bentley and the previously unseen Madeleine St. Germaine, who under different circumstances might have ended up marrying Stephen years before. More troubling for her is Morganna Blessing, a writer in whom Clea detects great romantic feelings for Stephen. A pair of epics with Baron Mordo, Dormammu and Nightmare establishes that Morganna has been reincarnated multiple times throughout history. Stephen encounters several of Morganna's previous incarnations first as he pursues his foes through time to wartime Britain where Mordo has been manipulated by his grandfather and Dormammu as part of a scheme to bring the latter to Earth in the past. In battling this and encountering Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, Stephen discovers that Morganna is a reincarnation of nurse Lady Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury's wartime girlfriend. Later as Stephen travels back through time in pursuit of a portion of Morganna's soul that has become detached and threatens human history and the realm of Nightmare. In the course of this he encounters further incarnations of Morganna and thus by predestination he creates the bond between them.

Doctor Strange's quest finally ends in Ancient Egypt as he finds himself caught up in the events of the Fantastic Four's visit to the kingdom of Rama-Tut way back in the earliest days of their title. There is no direct interaction between them and Stephen, whose body is captured and so has to spend most of the issue in his invisible astral form, with the result that early Marvel history isn't altered in any way. However Stephen's actions in focusing the sun upon the Thing are now the reason for the latter suddenly reverting to his human form at the oar of a galley, a moment of plot convenience in the original story that could have been simply dismissed as just a typical piece of Silver Age logic. But since neither Ancient Egypt nor Rama-Tut (better known as Kang and Immortus) have been significant forces in Doctor Strange's adventures, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this setting was chosen simply for the opportunity to retcon away Ben's reversion and reduce the perceived silliness of the Silver Age. There is frankly no need to constantly revisit the Silver Age and tinker with the stories in order to explain away the odder plot elements, and it's certainly not a priority for Doctor Strange to be running around clearing up incidents from the Fantastic Four.

Eventually Clea decides that as a being from another dimension she is unsuited to be the disciple of the Sorcerer Supreme and that she should not stand in the way of another's feelings and so opts to return to the Dark Dimension to lead a band of rebels. This throws Stephen into a prolonged despair, moping around his house for a while including time to work off a standby fill-in issue featuring the couple that would otherwise no longer be useable in an emergency. (At seventeen pages it's also now too short as the series, and regular Marvel titles in general, had recently increased to twenty-two story pages, but this allows space for a longer framing sequence than usual.) He is then subject to an attack by D'Spayre that throws him into a succession of ever more bizarre realms in which first he died in the car crash and then he is just a fictional character in comics created by "Ted Tevoski" and "Les Tane". It's a crisis that also serves as an opportunity for Stephen to come to terms with his place in the universe and begin to move on. The final issue in the volume sees him back on form as he faces down three of Mordo's former demons who seek to invade the Sanctum Sanctorum under the guise of being a film crew for an interview conducted by Morganna. We get a recapping of the origin and also the potential starting of something as he and Morganna agree to start as friends and see how things develop.

There are a few other developments to the supporting cast with Wong given an ancestor in the form of Kan, a warrior monk whose actions in defeating the Wizard Kings have led to each successive generation of the family seeking to atone through serving mystics. The household staff is expanded with the introduction of neighbour Sara Wolfe who finds herself stuck in the house for a protracted period and ends up sorting out Stephen's bills, leading to her accepting the job of Business Manager and Social Secretary. She is the great-granddaughter of a Cheyenne shaman but her role in the series is limited to providing personal and business support, with the occasional humorous moment such as her attempts to declares items like Eye of Newt as a tax deductible expense. There is, however, a hint that something could develop between her and Wong in the long run.

Just occasionally there are unusual experiments in storytelling, with issue #53's summation of previous events being delivered by Gnit, an annoying beast that is literally the nightmare of Nightmare, who thus cannot dispose of it whilst his realm is threatened. It's a change from the usual dwelling upon a key character's thoughts and makes for a bit of comedy at an otherwise deeply serious time.

Beyond the inexplicable detour into the events of an old issue of Fantastic Four there are no individual issues in this volume that stand out as real stinkers. But as a whole it's just slow and stilted, showing how difficult it is to make this series exciting. It may avoid overusing the same villains again and again and it's not really retreading old ground but at the same time it all feels like it's going through the motions. All creators have their weaker moments and this is most definitely some of those.
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