Friday, 1 May 2015

Essential Captain America volume 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Captain America volume 7 - creator labels

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

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 April 2015

Essential Avengers volume 5

Essential Avengers volume 5 consists of issues #98 to #119 plus the crossover issues Daredevil and the Black Widow #99 and part of Defenders #8 and all of #9 to #11. The early Avengers issues are written by Roy Thomas, with one plot from a story by Harlan Ellison, and the rest of the run is by Steve Englehart who also writes the Defenders issues whilst Steve Gerber writes the Daredevil and the Black Widow issue. The art sees short runs by Barry Windsor-Smith, Rich Buckler, Don Heck and Bob Brown with other issues by John Buscema, Jim Starlin and George Tuska. The Defenders issues are drawn by Sal Buscema and the Daredevil and the Black Widow issue is drawn by Sam Kweskin. Inevitably there's a separate post for some of the labels.

This volume covers the end of one writer's acclaimed run on the series and the start of another's but it's hard to avoid the impression that this results in the tail end of one's ideas and the early learning process for the other's. Both men have produced major epics that Avengers has returned to time and again, but by and large they're to be found in the volumes on either side and this one is instead treading water. That's not to say there aren't some standout moments but the volume as a whole doesn't feel like the best of the Avengers in this period.

One sign of where Thomas's heart really was can be found in the large number of characters that appear from the pages of X-Men, at the time in its reprint wilderness years. There's a multi-part storyline featuring the return of the Sentinels, now seeking to sterilise the entire human race so that the robots can then oversee artificial procreation with no more mutants. This is immediately followed by a visit to the Savage Land leading to a battle with the Mutates. And then there's another multi-part tale in which Magneto and the Piper have captured the X-Men then the Avengers as a prelude to a scheme to create an army of mutants. The latter two stories are scripted by Englehart but Thomas remains the editor and it's easy to see where the enthusiasm for revisiting so many elements from the X-Men, and especially what were then the last years of original material, had come from. But the problem is that both the Sentinels and Magneto, even the somewhat generic would-be world conqueror portrayed in this era, are foes very specific to one title and don't easily translate well to other series even though the Avengers contains one mutant member (the Scarlet Witch) throughout the whole of the volume.

And it's that member's relationship with another team member that is one of the main themes running through the whole volume. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch now feel confident about admitting their feelings for one another, although it's a bumpy ride at first due to the Vision's initial lack of knowledge of human behaviour and the Scarlet Witch's misunderstanding. Still they become an item and are generally supported by their teammates, by the media and by the public at large. There are, however, some exceptions and one issue sees them and the rest of the team attacked by the Living Bombs, a group of bigots who demonstrate strong gender and racial diversity but despise a mixed relationship between mutant and android and fear it will lead to more androids being created and taking over the world. It's a reminder that people can be incredibly tolerant and supportive in regards to one aspect can still be bigots in regards to another. Bigotry and hypocrisy can be found closer to home with Quicksilver's outright hostility to his sister being involved with an artificial android. This is despite Quicksilver having fallen for and become engaged to Crystal of the Inhumans. It seems Pietro will accept some interracial relationships but not others.

The relationship also impacts on one of the other themes to run throughout the volume, Hawkeye's search for his own place in life which also drives both of the crossovers. Having abandoned the growth serum in the Kree-Skrull War at the end of the previous volume, Clint resumes his original identity though initially adopts a total fashion disaster of a new costume before eventually resuming his original outfit. Coming back to Earth in Yugoslavia, he initially settles for working in a carnival where it turns out the mysterious strongman is an amnesiac Hercules. This leads into a grand battle with the Greek deity Ares, allied with the Enchantress in Olympus and utilising a wide range of henchmen, that climaxes in issue #100 which also sees the return of every Avenger so far, even the Hulk and the Swordsman. Although Hercules is left trapped on Olympus, Hawkeye returns to the Avengers full time but becomes increasingly angry and disillusioned, in part because his feelings for the Scarlet Witch have come to nothing. He eventually quits and sets out to resume things with the Black Widow, but she is much changed from the woman he worked alongside and is now in a relationship with Daredevil as seen in the included issue of their joint title. Such is Clint's anger that when the Avengers come looking for help against Magneto he refuses to hear them out and storms off again. He eventually finds himself working alongside the Defenders and gets caught up in the conflict between them and the Avengers due to the machinations of Loki and Dormammu.

The Avengers-Defenders conflict is a milestone in comics history as the longest lasting crossover to that time in terms of both publishing time and issues included. As a Defenders story it's certainly a key event. But as an Avengers storyline it doesn't feel that amazing. Loki may have been the villain the Avengers originally formed to deal with but he hasn't appeared enough to really feel like a core Avengers foe in a way that Dormammu feels more natural for the Defenders, admittedly a much younger team still largely dealing with Doctor Strange's foes. The story feels like it owes more to the traditional Justice League of America formula of dividing the team into several units to deal with individual parts of the menace before all coming together for the final showdown. In practice this boils down to a series of individual battles that are mainly won by the Defenders regardless of which series they take place in, all for individual pieces of a McGuffin. The set-up also flows more from the pages of Defenders than Avengers, making this an ultimately highly unsatisfying crossover here. It presumably owes its reputation to being the first of its kind rather than to the actual content.

The other stories in the volume contain a mixture of old and forgettable new foes. One story sees a teaming of the Space Phantom and the Grim Reaper, apparently allied but each working towards their own ends in just which human body they will put the Vision's consciousness in. The story is complicated by the presence of Hydra in a tie-in to events over in Captain America's own title, with the revelation that the Space Phantom has been impersonating one of Cap's foes. The final issue in the volume sees the team clash with the Collector against the backdrop of the annual Halloween Parade in Rutland. One of the few new foes introduced in these pages is Imus Champion, a very rich giant of a man who seeks to master all skills and hires Hawkeye to train him in archery before embarking upon an audacious scheme to destroy California. There are some good ideas in the concept but the execution just doesn't make for an especially memorable foe. Less memorable still is the Lion God, a deity worshipped by an African tribe and presumably intended to be a recurring foe for the Black Panther but instead he gets easily defeated the first time and then the second time he seems to have been set up purely to demonstrate the worth of the newly arrived Swordsman and Mantis. Even less memorable are Skol and the Troglodytes, a race of underground dwellers who live near the Black Knight's castle.

One of the oddest stories comes from a plot by Harlan Ellison but the result is a rather incoherent mess in which ordinary man Leonard Tibbit is given great powers by the Watcher and told the only way to save humanity from certain doom is to kill five particular people, but this is actually just a way to get the Avengers involved to stop the real menace - Tibbit himself. It's completely out of character for the Watcher to intervene in such a way and it doesn't make much sense either when he could have simply informed the Avengers.

Towards the end of the volume comes the permanent return of the Swordsman, accompanied by the mysterious Mantis, a woman he met in a bar in Vietnam. It's unclear if the Swordsman has genuinely reformed and is seeking acceptance through membership of the team or if he is only faking it as part of a scheme yet to be revealed. Mantis's motivations are even more obscure and her powers have yet to be fully explored, making for good intrigue to come.

The art in the volume is rather inconsistent, particularly when compared to the stability on the writing front. Barry Windsor-Smith's brief run shows his distinctive style which is especially good for the mythology driven storyline, whilst Don Heck provides the best of the more traditionally solid runs.

Overall this volume is okay but not really spectacular. The obsession with reviving old X-Men foes in the first half of the volume is quite simply misplaced and can distract at times from the ongoing storylines and character development. Other than Mantis there just aren't any really memorable creations added in these pages. It's clear that this combines one writer exhausted at the end of a long run and another only slowly limbering up and finding their feet on the title before going on to produce something especially memorable. This is often a curse of the Essentials to catch the less good and it's unfortunate that this volume has landed right between two especially memorable heights.

Essential Avengers volume 5 - creator labels

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

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Sampling Two-Gun Kid 60

It's time for another look at some of a long running series that is are unrepresented in the Essentials.

As with many of Marvel's non-superhero titles, Two-Gun Kid hasn't had many reprints in the modern age. Things were different in the 1960s and 1970s when Marvel's Western titles carried many reprints and some stories were printed more than twice. But in more recent years the issue that's had the best reprint is issue #60, with all three stories reprinted in issue #15 of the Marvel Milestones series in 2006. Individual stories from the issue have popped up in Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby volume 2, which does as it says on the tin, and Gunslingers #1, a reprint one-shot from 2000 that contained several Marvel Western stories.

Two-Gun Kid #60 contains three stories, all scripted by Stan Lee. The two featuring the Kid are drawn by Jack Kirby and the non-Kid tale is drawn by Don Heck. Issue #60 was in fact the launch of the third incarnation of the title and the second character to hold the name. The original Two-Gun Kid was the first big name Marvel Western hero, though at a glance the outlaw Clay Harder in a dark suit is more the forerunner of the second Rawhide Kid than of the second Two-Gun Kid. The title was launched in 1948 and lasted ten issues with the character carrying on elsewhere and then regaining his own title in 1953, resuming the numbering from issue #11. The series lasted until early 1961. Then in late 1962 it was revived but with a completely new character in the title role.

The original character is briefly acknowledged here when Matt Hawk adopts the name, stating "Back east I remember reading about a fictitious gun-fighter named the Two Gun-Kid! I don't know what ever happened to him, but I think I'll borrow the name!" It's a rare case of Marvel explicitly retconning away a character in order to introduce a successor, and doing so in much the same way that DC retconned away the original Flash. The original Two-Gun Kid would later suffer the further indignity of having some of his adventures modified and reprinted as tales of his successor. Of course it should be fairly easy to reinstate him in continuity by simply establishing the stories Matt Hawk as having actually been accounts of a true character. But for all the claims that Marvel has traditionally not gone in for the kind of reboots associated with DC, this stands as evidence that they too have explicitly swept away continuity and characters when needs be.

As for the issue itself, the two stories quickly establish the set-up with some concepts that pop up again in other Silver Age titles. The main character is a young lawyer called Matt, who gets picked on by bullies from the very start of the story, whose main guiding force is a father figure called Ben. The hero is attracted to a young professional woman but she dislikes his costumed identity because of the circumstances of her brother's death. You can see elements that would be reused for both Spider-Man and Daredevil, but also the Rawhide Kid learnt his skills from a father figure called Ben (and that very issue is included in the Marvel Milestones reprint). Matt Hawk is truly an outsider, a lawyer from the eastern United States who has arrived in the small town of Tombstone in Texas and finds a lawless environment where few need his legal skills. He also quickly learns he needs to handle a gun and is trained in all the skills by Ben Dancer in just eight panels. Captions tells us this took months but Matt's relations with the Carter family have barely changed in the interim. As protection Matt adopts a costumed identity and accepts a horse called Thunder. He soon takes down a gang of robbers and demonstrates his incredible shooting skills. However he lets one robber go as Clem Carter is the stepbrother of Nancy, the local school teacher whom Matt is fond of and doesn't want to give any heartbreak.

This initial thirteen page story seems to have set up all the basics of the hero, his skills, his horse, his romantic interest and a potentially recurring foe that he can't bring himself to dispose of. However in the second story Clem and another gang steal some money, only for Clem to die in an argument about how to share it out. But when Matt returns to town he finds the townsfolk believe the Two-Gun Kid was the killer and Nancy hates him for it. Matt is scared to break her heart again with the truth about either his identity or her brother. It provides a point for ongoing tension that merely fighting her brother wouldn't, but it feels a rather sudden development when there was potential to expand the enmity first.

The middle story is a non-Kid tale of the West, telling of a tribe of Native Americans being driven to a war they can't win by an ambitious medicine man whilst the chief's son counsels peace and is exiled for it. It's a nice little piece focusing on the futility of conflict, the ambitions of the hawk and the true bravery of the dove in resisting calls for war. It may contain some of the old stereotypes but in the space available it manages to present the Navajo tribe as sophisticated and complex rather than a bunch of unthinking savages.

Overall the Two-Gun Kid represents an interesting of the Western and costumed hero genres. It is no coincidence that this approach was launched in the same period as the ongoing Thor, Ant-Man and solo Human Torch strips and the first attempt at Spider-Man. This issue isn't the most sophisticated of stories but then quite a few heroes' first issues aren't that spectacular. It would certainly be interesting to see more of the series to show how it developed.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Essential Thor volume 4

Essential Thor volume 4 reprints issues #167 to #195. The first half is the end of the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee run. Kirby is succeeded by John Buscema, with a couple of issues in between by Neal Adams, whilst near the end Lee is succeeded by Gerry Conway.

The first half of the volume covers the last year of the Lee-Kirby partnership plus a few fill-ins to wrap things up. And it may just be the bad luck of where the volume breaks come but this last year feels extremely tired and repetitive. There are very few new original foes introduced in these pages, just a couple of robots in the forms of the Communist created Thermal Man and the mad scientist invented Crypto-Man, plus forgettable ruthless rich man Kronin Krask and Loki's wizard henchman Igron. Otherwise, it's a heavy dose of more of the same. We get yet more conflict with Loki, another take-over of Asgard, another attack by Surtur, another mission in deep space for Thor, another encounter with Galactus, another fight with the Circus of Crime, another battle with the Wrecker, no less than two storylines involving foes trying to take over Thor's body and so forth. There's a one-off return appearance by Jane Foster together with the doctor she now works for and has fallen for, Jim North, but there's no real tension between the current boyfriend and the ex even as they have to work together to rescue Jane from Krask. Only a brief sojourn into the realm of Mephisto and a battle with the Abomination whilst the Stranger is coming feel in any way original, at least for this series, and significantly both moments come under fill-in artists. Beyond that the most substantial addition to any of the mythology is the origin of Galactus, yet even this is let down by the announcement that this knowledge was the sole reason for Thor's mission rather than conflict. Otherwise, this is a case of just doing Thor by numbers. The artwork does, however, hold up quite well with Neal Adams having a big task when he steps in to finish off the Thor-Loki body swap storyline but he produces strong art that matches the existing style for the series.

Issue #179 is the last issue to be drawn by Jack Kirby and frankly it's one too many. Had he instead stopped at issue #177 (#178 is a fill-in drawn by John Buscema and ignored by the next one), he would have ended with on the climax of the Surtur storyline, going out on the nearest to a high there is in this final part of the run. Instead Kirby's last issue sees Loki use what seems to be a piece of dough to cover Thor's face, causing them to trade bodies and powers, but not clothes until Loki swaps the manually. The storyline runs into Neal Adams's issues, making for a very disappointing last job for Kirby. (And he would never return to the title so, other than the occasional reprint, it would be the last time ever that his work appeared here.)

What could have caused the series to sink into a quagmire of dull repetition? The answer is probably to be found in Jack Kirby's yearning for better terms and conditions and in particular greater creator benefits. Although there's been endless debate about just who contributed what on the Lee/Kirby creations, it's generally agreed that in their last years Stan Lee was primarily just scripting Kirby's finished pages, with Kirby doing most if not all of the story ideas and plotting as well as the pencilling. Consequently, it seems that the flow of imagination had been arrested at his end, perhaps deliberately. His subsequent career at first DC and then a return to Marvel show that he still had many big ideas in him, so here he was either going through a phase of writers' block or else he was deliberately holding back on new ideas until he could deliver them under perceived better terms and conditions. That he the ground running upon his arrival at DC with the Fourth World suggests that it was a case of the latter. And given his feelings that his creative contributions had been somewhat overlooked and insufficiently rewarded, it's not surprising that he wanted to get a better outcome with future creations. But what was the best course of action for Jack Kirby wasn't necessarily the best for Thor. The result is a set of work that's almost phoned in, recycling concepts and stories that were not that old at the time and showing all the hallmarks of someone just working out the end of their contract (or the equivalent in an era when the paperwork was appallingly handled). I don't know when in the course of this volume Kirby ultimately decided to accept DC's offer rather than carry on at Marvel (he may have been negotiating with DC for a couple of years, but was that a move definitely in mind or was it with a view to getting a better offer out of Marvel) but the time between his last Marvel and first DC work was very brief, suggesting there was clearly a period of notice. Looking at the results it might have been better for the series to let him immediately and indeed these issues are a good counter to criticism of other creators who leave series and companies on a hurry.

Of course Kirby's isn't the only name on the credits and whatever the debate about what he was actually contributing at this stage, Stan Lee was still taking credit and responsibility for the output so cannot evade blame for the shortcomings. Lee stays on the series for a year further than Kirby and there are some original ideas but it's not clear if these come from Lee or Buscema, a partnership credit that has not received much in-depth analysis compared to some others. The final three issues in the volume are scripted by Gerry Conway but as he's mainly wrapping up existing storylines it's hard to detect if he's a burst of new imagination or someone will just regurgitate much of what has come before. And that has been a problem with a lot of Thor over the years. Lee and Kirby may not have given the strip the greatest attention when it started but once the pair took full control they went in to produce an amazingly imaginative run that offered something truly epic. Unfortunately it seems they also cast a shadow that has often proved difficult to escape from, and this volume shows that it began on their watch. It's also a rejoinder to those who wished the Lee-Kirby partnership could have gone on forever and that the solution to all perceived deficiencies in either's work post-1970 would have been to get the other onto the project as well. I suspect the results would have been much more like their work here than during the earlier years of their collaboration, and fans would be arguing over who was holding who back and suggesting Kirby either going solo or working with a different scriptwriter for a change.

Following the wrapping up of Kirby's last storyline by Neal Adams, the new~ish era begins with a two-parter that pitches Thor against Doctor Doom and gives a strong sense of doing things differently from before. Then we get a saga involving the mysterious entity Infinity that is steadily consuming the universe into the world beyond but harbours a dark secret. The story shows originality in its threat and resolution but is let down by a subplot involving Loki launching yet another attempt to seize power in Asgard, this time by direct conquest with the aid of the Frost Giants. With Infinity dispatched, Thor has to face down looming death itself in the form of Hela. Meanwhile Loki seizes power in Asgard and proceeds to force Sif to agree to marry him. To deal with Thor he has Karnilla use her magic to create Durok the Demolisher, an incredibly strong and powerful fighter who proves incredibly hard to overcome, resulting in Balder calling in help from the Silver Surfer. As is so often the case, Lee's last issue ends on a cliffhanger midway through an ongoing story, here being the arrival of the Silver Surfer on the scene.

Looking at this post Kirby year, it's not exactly awash with bold new ideas and long lasting new characters. Loki has been responsible for the creation of other incredibly strong foes in the past and Durok offers little sign of long term staying power. Infinity shows more originality but has an origin and resolution that makes it hard to set up a decent sequel. Otherwise it's mainly taking existing elements and offering up new twists on them, though Doctor Doom at least hasn't been seen in this series before.

The last few issues under Gerry Conway see an extra long resolution to the threat of Durok that rather forgets just who is the star of the series. Then we get a showdown with Loki in Asgard, followed by an odd issue at the end of the volume that sees Thor and the Warriors Three dispatched to prevent the return of Mangog whilst Sif is unceremoniously sent to another world by Odin. Oddly for a volume released in the full cover era of the Essentials it ends on a cliffhanger with Mangog's threat to Asgard unresolved.

Although the writing is generally weak across the whole volume, the art holds up very well and continues to present a strong dynamism. Kirby has a distinctive style but both Adams and Buscema do well to match it at first, with Buscema slowly evolving into a distinctive pattern of his own. There's also some good adaptation to the format restrictions of this era. This volume covers a period when most Marvel comics had twenty story pages but with two of them covering only the upper half of the page. Often these pages work as just one page cut in the middle and with reprints simply pasting them back together into a single page. But sometimes we get a more imaginative use of this restrictive format with a number of issues having a double page spread across the halves that presents an effective widescreen image.

The art may be good but there's no disguising that the stories feel repetitive and tired. Much of this volume is by one or two creators at the tail end of their run and there's a combination of burnout, wallowing in past successes and holding back on new ideas, all combining to produce a very disappointing conclusion to what had been a strong strip in the past. Though the art gets a strong replacement there's little sign by the end of the volume that new imagination has been infused into the title. Overall it's a disappointment.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Herb Trimpe 1939 - 2015

I have just heard the news that Herb Trimpe has passed away.

Across many decades at Marvel he worked on many different titles - I first encountered his art on reprints of his G.I. Joe and Transformers work and his work has featured in many Essential volumes reviewed here - but one series looms large in his career above all else, the Incredible Hulk. Many, many readers consider him to be the Hulk's greatest artist of all time.


Photo © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 10 April 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 4

Essential Iron Man volume 4 consists of issues #39 to #61 including a back-up in issue #44 featuring Ant-Man. The writing sees runs by Gerry Conway and Mike Friedrich plus other issues by Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber. Most of the art is by George Tuska with other contributions by Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith and Jim Starlin. The Ant-Man tale is written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru.

This volume comes from the early 1970s and sees a slow attempt to update the character at a time when real life events had made arms manufacturers not particularly popular in the States. At the same time it also tries to modernise the portrayal of some of the characters and roles, with the most notable success being Pepper Hogan who returns to her old job position but is now much more a strong executive assistant rather than the simple typist, telephone answerer and diary keeper she had been in earlier years. On multiple occasions the factory is surrounded by protestors, whether students protesting the manufacturing of weapons or the workers out on strike due to devious propaganda, and eventually this leads Tony to start diversifying the output. However it takes a while to assert full control.

The early issues see Tony facing a challenge in the boardroom as Simon Gilbert, the chairperson of the board of Stark Industries, tries to have Tony removed as president of the company, only to be threatened with his own removal as chairperson by Tony. The problem with this kind of corporate drama is that it relies on the reader having a clear knowledge of the basics of corporate governance in order to understand how such power is wielded when Tony holds the majority of shares. Boardroom drama can be exciting when the threat is obvious and the resolution dramatic but here it descends into two men in suits each trying to remove the other through the exercise of some undefined power or other. Eventually Tony succeeds in the boardroom leading to Gilbert hiring the Firebrand to blow up a munitions plant, only to die in the explosion himself. The Firebrand is revealed to be Gilbert's son, adding a new level to his enmity with Iron Man.

There's a protracted storyline involving Tony's engineer and friend Kevin O'Brien who adopts the Guardsman armour to protect Stark Industries but inexperience and paranoia overwhelm him, not helped by his jealousy of Tony over Marianne Rodgers. Partially egged on by Gilbert and other board members, Kevin winds up facing a group of students protesting over arms manufacturing and deploys his repulsors on them, apparently killing four of them. (We're subsequently told they were only injured but as it comes solely via dialogue and captions it feels like emergency editing to tone down the storyline.) This leads to a confrontation between Iron Man and the Guardsman over their respective methods and ends in tragedy when Kevin is caught in a tank explosion. The funeral leads to soul-searching on Tony's part and triggers an issue mainly devoted to recounting the origin, which also supplies the cover, used for the volume as a whole.

Marianne Rodgers is probably the best woman that Tony's yet been involved with. She has a degree of Extra Sensory Perception that leads her to heightened concern for Tony, and also leads her to realise that he and Iron Man are one and the same, but contrary to his long standing fears she doesn't reject them. Instead they grow ever closer, to Kevin's disappointment, and soon get engaged. However her ESP leads her to visions of Iron Man's doom if she stays with him and after a battle with the Super-Adaptoid that leaves Tony desperate for help in recharging his power, Marianne instead deserts him. When the final confrontation comes with the Adaptoid in its new form of the Cyborg Sinister, rebuilt by Tyrr and Jarr from a microworld called Bast, Iron Man ultimately defeats the prophecy by overwhelming it with acid and then destroying it but trust has broken down between Tony and Marianne, leading them to call off the engagement. Marianne goes off to work but finds her ESP wreaks havoc in the workplace and she is subsequently hospitalised. Meanwhile Pepper Hogan returns to Tony's life when she accepts once more the job of his personal secretary but amidst the jet setting it becomes clear Tony still has feelings for her even though she is now married. Meanwhile Happy Hogan is getting more and more jealous of the situation, especially when the newspapers start assuming Tony and Pepper are an item, and soon announces he is leaving by means of a telegram.

The early part of the volume sees a string of incredibly forgettable foes, whether introduced here or reused from another series. Those in the former category include the White Dragon, a Chinese scientist and inventor with troops who feels all too like a Mandarin knock off, the Slasher and Demitrius, a pair in silly costumes, Mikas the Soulfather, an android with ESP powers who believes himself to be an all powerful mutant, a robot copy of the Night Phantom, Raga, the "Son of Fire", a cult leader with the ability to control flames, and his teacher, the Black Lama. There's also an encounter with Princess Python, temporarily solo from the Circus of Crime, and her pet snake Precious. All in all it's a very dull set, made worse by several being agents of the mysterious "Mr Kline", who also appears in the contemporary Daredevil. Unfortunately that seems to be the main place for explaining and dealing with him, with the result that in this volume he's just a shadowy figure responsible for some events but ultimately left unexplained.

Towards the end we get two issues that have the biggest impact on long term Marvel continuity although their impact on Iron Man is rather less. Issue #54 sees the introduction of the space travelling Madame MacEvil, later better known as Moondragon, who takes control of Iron Man's armour remotely and pits him against Sub-Mariner as part of scientific investigations into human hybrids. She's the kind of character who appears to have a large unrevealed backstory that explains her actions but all we get here is an amoral scientist who swears vengeance when her plans come to nothing. The following issue is much better known as it sees the introduction of both Thanos and Drax the Destroyer. And also of the Blood Brothers but they don't get talked about so much. The issue debuts a powerful alien conqueror foe with a strong backstory and a pre-existing nemesis, making for a memorable confrontation and it's hard to deny the significance of this issue given that Thanos has been incredibly successful for Marvel in the long run. The tale as a single piece is quite strong and leaves the reader wanting more. But, as is often the case with big cosmic events and particular those involving Thanos, the host title can wind up feeling a rather odd place for the event. Iron Man does not generally get caught up in interplanetary conflict and this story would probably be more at home in Fantastic Four or Thor or Avengers. And when read with the issues around it, it feels like part of a general ream of randomness near the end of this volume as the writers struggle to find a new direction and purpose for the title.

As they search we get an odd confrontation with the "menace" of Rasputin, a magician with poor powers who brings a statue to life. Then we get a strange tale that starts off with the Mandarin in disguise fomenting unrest amongst the Stark Industries workforce but which diverts into a tale of a search for new power rings and sees the Mandarin and Unicorn temporarily swap bodies. There's a return by a vengeance seeking Firebrand and then finally a clash with Daredevil's old foe the Masked Marauder. None of these tales feels in any way spectacular and the result is just a drudge through the end of the volume.

There are some signs of further developments for Tony with the situation of him crawling away from a successful fight in search of a power recharge now starting to get tired (though read in an era of fast draining smartphones it feels even more familiar now than over forty years ago), and towards the end there are signs that he is increasingly able to survive for periods without a functioning chest plate pacemaker, suggesting that his transplanted heart is finally being accepted by his body. I have no idea how scientifically plausible this scenario is, but the signs are encouraging that Tony is finally conquering his main physical weakness and showing hope for the future in spite of the stunted series around him.

One possibility for diversifying things up a bit would have been to introduce a back-up strip featuring a second hero, as happened in a number of other comics at this time, though mainly over at DC. Issues #43 & #44 contain first an Ant-Man reprint and then an original tale respectively at a time when Marvel expanded the size and cost of the comics, only to contract them back after a couple of months. The original tale is included here but it's a rather forgettable piece of a sweet shop owner attempting an insurance scam through arson whilst Hank Pym encounters the intelligent Scarlet Beetle once more, with his foe coming to an extremely undignified end. It doesn't leave the reader desperate for a regular series of Ant-Man back-ups and suggests the subsequent reversion to normal sized issues was wise and Marvel heroes don't generally prosper when hiding in the back of others' titles.

In general this is a rather slight and disappointing volume. In spite of the ongoing threads involving Marianne Rodgers, Simon Gilbert, Kevin O'Brien or Mr Kline, overall the whole thing feels slow and disjointed. The first half or so of the volume does make an effort to find a direction and stick with it even though it's not the most exciting thing, but the latter half shows a series just floundering about and trying all manner of situations and foes in the hope that something will eventually stick. This is not the series at its best.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 3

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 3 collects issues #15-20 of the Handbook, covering the entries from Wonder Man to Zzzax, then an appendix for Alien Races and finally the Book of the Dead covering Air-Walker to Zuras. The main creative forces are still Mark Gruenwald and Peter Sanderson though Eliot R. Brown is only credited on issue #15.

The first issue contains the last few entries for living characters. One oddity is that Ymir the Frost Giant is given a full-page art shot. Of all the characters to receive this accolade, he would be very low on the list and it's clearly an emergency piece of padding. The entries are fairly standard though Zabu's does its best to reconcile what is known about real life sabre-tooth tigers with how artists have often drawn him. The Book of the Dead continues in much the same manner. There are attempts to explain away some of the stuff that went unremarked upon in the Silver Age such as the suggestion that the Kangaroo might actually have been a mutant rather than simply someone who trained hard enough amongst real kangaroos or speculation as to why Frederick Foswell/the Big Man was released from jail so quickly. More recent confusions are also subject to clean-up attempts, with the entry on the original Hobgoblin doing its best to weave motivation into the already confused backstory whilst the entry for the Purple Man struggles with a chronology that makes it difficult to explain his daughter having inherited his powers.

An interesting set of revelations here concern many of the villains killed by the Scourge of the Underworld. Reading through these entries it's clear just how lame most of them were and the whole storyline was clearly a useful way to clear out a weaker corner of the Marvel universe. Left ambiguous is whether or not there was more than one Scourge with the entry for Titania I questioning how the male killer could have convincingly disguised himself as the woman who killed her and if it was another Scourge who killed the first.

The Book of the Dead also includes some characters who existed in other time periods, most notably Kid Colt, the Rawhide Kid and the Two-Gun Kid, even though the circumstances of their deaths had not been revealed and the Two-Gun Kid's time travelling means he may be alive in the present day. Notably the Rawhide Kid's first appearance is given as issue #1 of his eponymous series; it's not clear if this is an error or a declaration that the Kid who appeared in the first sixteen issues was the same as the better known character from issue #17's relaunch. Also notable is that the Book of the Dead tries to include a panel of each character's moment of death.

The Alien Races Appendix consists of four entries a page depicting each alien race with the following information:
  • NAME
  • Origin Galaxy
  • Star System
  • Planet
  • Estimated population (Sometimes just "Population", presumably because specific data is available)
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Type
  • Eyes
  • Fingers
  • Toes
  • Skin color
  • Average height
  • Special adaptations
  • Type of government
  • Level of technology
  • Names of representatives
  • Note
  • First appearance
Initially the front and end pieces finish off the guide to other dimensions before running some other lists and tables. "Strength Levels in the known Marvel Universe" lists all the exceptionally strong characters by the tonnage they are able to lift. We then get "An alphabetical list of Marvel's publications with series set in the Marvel Universe (excludes Western, romance, barbarian, and non-series Marvel comics)" that sets out to provide a clear canon. In contrast to editorial comments in earlier volumes, both G.I. Joe and the Transformers are now excluded though other toy titles like Rom and Micronauts are included. Conversely the canon includes the Captain Britain Weekly published by Marvel UK, which probably wasn't easy to find on the back issue market then.

At the end there's a gallery that first combines each four set of covers to show the continuous image and then reprints the covers from the first set of collected editions - a ten part deluxe format that reprinted two issues at a time and actually began during the original release of this Handbook.

The editorials continue to list errors as well as discussing other matters such as the public awareness of aliens in the Marvel universe and the limitations of space technology, just how to determine whether or not a character is actually dead (and a number of characters listed in the Book of the Dead have since come back to life; a list of criteria is given but it ultimately comes down to editorial rulings), how accurately the comics depict the events that happened when it comes to internal contradictions, and an announcement that the next series will be a shorter "'88 Update" under the editorship of Howard Mackie. We'll see how that turns out. What is notably absent this time round is a general appendix despite many entries referencing it; the editorial in issue #18 states it will appear after the Update.

The Deluxe Edition of the Handbook seems to be the incarnation most favoured by many fans, possibly because of its size and scope, possibly because of the even more deluxe reprint editions. But in the Essential series it's actually the least essential, being neither the original nor the final version. I could endlessly rehash or reprint my dislike of these particular volumes but ultimately they can be safely ignored.
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