Friday, 25 July 2014

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1 contains Marvel Spotlight #2-4, Werewolf by Night #1-21, Marvel Team-Up #12, Giant-Size Creatures #1 and Tomb of Dracula #18. Bonus material includes the Werewolf's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and an alternate cover to Marvel Spotlight #4. The character's debut is plotted by Roy and Jeanie Thomas and scripted by Gerry Conway. Conway writes the rest of the Marvel Spotlight issues and some of the Werewolf by Night issues; others are written by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich and Doug Moench. Conway plots and Wein scripts the Marvel Team-Up whilst Wolfman writes the Tomb of Dracula issue and Tony Isabella the Giant-Size Creatures. The art on Marvel Spotlight and Werewolf by Night is mainly by Mike Ploog with Don Perlin taking over at the end of the run; other issues are drawn by Werner Roth, Tom Sutton and Gil Kane. Perlin also draws the Giant-Size Creatures story, whilst the Tomb of Dracula issue is by Gene Colan and the Marvel Team-Up by Ross Andru. Yet again this results in a lot of labels, so some have been placed in a separate post.

The Werewolf is often bracketed together with Dracula and the Monster of Frankenstein to form a trinity of Gothic era monsters, and some of these traditional links are respected within these pages, most obviously the crossover with Tomb of Dracula. But whereas both the Frankenstein Monster and Dracula are drawn primarily from famous novels, the Werewolf lacks a direct literary base and is instead drawn from legends that go back to at least the Middle Ages. Literature and film may have added elements to the mythology, but there's no single story to follow and no single werewolf who strides through popular culture with a distinct character. As a result creators have much greater scope here than with the other horror imports.

Here we get the story of Jack Russell, a young American man who upon turning eighteen discovers he has inherited the curse of transforming into a werewolf every night during a full moon. Although he usually retains sentience about what his wolf form gets up to, there is no control and he can only be a passive narrator to the actions of the animal man. Towards the end of the volume he does gain some temporary control, whether through the magical intervention of Topaz or thanks to a ring that transforms him at any time and leaves Jack in control, but neither method lasts very long. Jack comes with a well developed background with his father having been an eastern European noble who also succumbed to the curse and was killed in wolf form. Jack's mother has remarried and she gets killed in the first issue. Jack suspects his step-father, Philip Russell, of being responsible and in addition tensions about inheritances from both his natural parents create a wedge between the two but due to a promise he made to his mother on her deathbed, Jack is unable to take action against Philip and even his werewolf form feels restrained. Jack's closest friend is his younger sister Lissa, who has not yet reached eighteen by the end of the volume, and there's a long running question about whether she too will succumb to the curse. With some additional good supporting cast members the result is a strong set-up as Jack struggles to control his lycanthropic side and fend off a succession of interventions by those after one part of his magical legacy or another.

"Jack Russell" is one of those names that makes for a good pun but doesn't withstand close scrutiny when one realises that "Russell" is his stepfather's name yet his lycanthropic heritage comes from his natural father. Nor for that matter does it describe the breed of dog that Jack turns into. A later writer establishes that the step-father is the natural father's brother, as part of a general wrap-up of the issues within the Russell family, but, as is often the case with such revelations under later writers (and this comes under the third regular writer), it just doesn't feel like this was part of the original plan. I'm not too certain if "Russell" really is an Anglicisation if "Russoff" though as there's never been a regulator of converting names it's easy to see how some immigration official could produce that one. The other inevitable bad pun comes straightaway on the credits of issue #11 as they announce the arrival of writer Marv Wolfman.

This is another series that largely keeps to itself, with the encounters with other Marvel characters restricted to a single crossovers, one Giant-Size issue and a solitary Marvel Team-Up. Such restraint is quite remarkable given that the character is based Los Angeles at a time when so too were the Black Widow and Daredevil, whilst the Ghost Rider was also roaming the west. But instead of some of these obvious meetings we just get three guest appearances, one from Marvel's biggest horror character, one by Marvel's biggest superhero overall and one by an obscure hero being reinvented as a kind of were-woman who offers a contrast with Jack's situation plus conflict with the established terrorist group Hydra. Since the Marvel Team-Up issue is the very last one to appear in this volume I can't tell if it's a vital set-up for storylines to come in volume 2 or has just been included either to fill up pages or perhaps to get Spider-Man completists to buy it. But it does feel highly inconsequential as Jack and Spider-Man clash with a magician working undercover on the stage. The Giant-Size Creatures issue feels rather more justified, with the Werewolf taking the cover billing and the encounter being referenced in the regular series, even though it's not entirely clear just where in the tight ongoing continuity Jack found time for a holiday in Mexico. Still it allows for a team-up with Tigra, the new form of the hero previously known as the Cat but who is transformed here. However Jack's presence in the issue is a reminder of just how popular he was at the time - before Marvel rolled out a wide range of Giant-Size versions of many of their titles, they first released just a few with more generic overall titles to test the format. It's amazing to find that the Werewolf headed one of the last of these tests, putting him on an equal footing with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Dracula. Not bad for such a new character with no individual roots in either literature or film.

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be trying to strengthen the connection between the two monsters, but it just feels awkward and forced. Members of both titles' supporting casts appear but with the exception of Frank Drake from Tomb of Dracula, neither set is properly introduced for the other book's readers. The crossover fleshes out the origin of the Russoff/Russell family curse and appropriately it is dated to the Gothic era of the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately it's also tied to the history of Dracula for no particular reason. Maybe the intention was to show a long history of the Russoffs/Russells fighting against Dracula but there's no such revelation here. Instead we just learn how Jack's ancestor had killed Dracula and freed a young girl prisoner, only to discover she was a werewolf who promptly bit and infected him. Nothing in this part of the origin necessitates either the presence of Dracula or a second ancestral home to go alongside the already established Baltic castle (which is relocated brick by brick to the United States). There's also evidence of a terrible grasp of geography as Transylvania gets presented as a single village deep in the interior of Romania yet it also has a sailor with his boat moored locally. It seems the village is located on the Danube, with Castle Dracula located on the very bank of the river, again something that would not get good marks in a geography exam. All in all the crossover just feels like a rush job to capitalise on both titles' popularity and shared writer.

By contrast the bulk of the regular series generally feels as though it has been carefully constructed. All the standard werewolf traditions are in place, whether the full moon or the aversion to silver. I'm not so familiar with details such as the curse being passed by a bite or by inheritance, or whether the curse can be broken if the werewolf finds and kills another of its kind, but both aspects feel entirely in place with the rest of this neo-Gothic series. Early on the threats are predominantly one-offs, primarily pursuing the Werewolf for one mystical purpose or another, but later on there are some more recurring foes established, most notably the mysterious and, at this stage, unseen organisation known only as "the Committee" who turn out to have been behind the death of Jack's mother and the blackmail of his step-father. Another recurring foe is the sorcerer Taboo. Elsewhere, following up on a Marvel tradition, there's a villainous circus but for once it's a different outfit from the Ringmaster's lot. Then there's a latter-day hunchback who inhabits Notre Dame. Many other one-off foes fit into various archetypes of sorcerers, non-magical criminals, or even big game hunters. A few foes are introduced who would go on to memorable appearances in other Marvel series including Tatterdemalion the vengeful derelict, or the self-appointed executing vigilante the Hangman, whose name seems a bit of a misnomer as he appears to do most of his killing with a scythe. There are also a couple of vampires imported from the pages of Dracula Lives, but that and the appearances of Dracula and Hydra already mentioned are it for foes from elsewhere.

But Jack's real foe is his own altered self. Wisely he's not written as the Hulk with fur, although there are a few similarities such as the endless torn trousers and the brief attempt to get his monstrous side confined for the night under the guard of his closest male friend. Instead the Werewolf is presented as an actual animal albeit in anthropomorphic form and this makes for a total sense of helplessness as neither Jack can control it nor can anyone else reason with it. Every month he transforms without fail and the series does its best to note which particular day in the cycle it is - with the Marvel Team-Up issue managing to work in an out of cycle transformation so as to not disturb this pattern.

Jack's main supporting cast are initially his loyal sister Lissa, who is herself targeted at times by those seeking the mystical powers of the werewolf curse, and writer Buck Cowan who befriends Jack and often serves to protect him when the curse takes hold. When Jack takes up a room in a singles' building he soon befriends some of the other residents, including the actress Clary Winter who is not the only woman in the building to make moves on him. His immediate neighbour is the mysterious Raymond Coker, who turns out to also be a werewolf and desperately using whatever magic he can to keep his lycanthropic side under control. Another who turns werewolf is Lou Hackett, a police lieutenant who investigates the sightings but subsequently receives one of the werewolf rings and is himself transformed. Then there's the young witch Topaz who forms a bond with Jack and for a time is able to give him control of his wolf form but over time her powers drain and she is forced to go away and seek to revitalise them.

Overall this series is quite a surprise. Right from the outset it manages to blend elements from traditional legends with common themes developed by the superhero comics to produce a series with a strong sympathetic lead character caught in a troublesome situation and supported by a good wider cast of characters. This is not a tale of superheroics and so there's little need to establish a recurring set of foes. Instead this is a tale of one man struggling with a curse and with the trouble it brings with it. The result is a good solid read.

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1 - creator labels

Once more we come across a volume with many creators, so here is the usual separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Essential Man-Thing volume 1

Hoh boy. This is the one that brings out all the sniggering.

So let's take this slowly. Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains material from multiple titles including issues of Giant-Size Man-Thing.

Let's just pause for a moment to let everyone get the sniggering out of their system.

[Lengthy pause.]

All done? Because there won't be another break.

(But on an aside, did the term "man-thing" actually have such connotations in early 1970s America, or are the sniggers all down to latter-day use of the term or even transatlantic differences? A quick Google search is unhelpful, being dominated by the comic character, but then the term is far from the most common name for the... well you know.)

Now down to business.

Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains the eponymous creature's earliest appearances and issues, consisting of material from Savage Tales #1, Ka-Zar's feature in Astonishing Tales #12-13, Adventure into Fear #10-19, Man-Thing #1-14, Giant-Size Man-Thing #1-2 and Monsters Unleashed #5 & #8-9. Most of these series were anthologies in either comic or magazine format, the latter not falling under the Comics Code Authority and allowing for less censored material. Adventures into Fear was previously a reprint series and then became another long-run try-out title before successful characters received a title in their own right. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both the Man-Thing and Jennifer Kale. One notable omission is the cover to Savage Tales #1 but on investigation it seems that this is because the cover spotlights Conan the Barbarian and so presumably having lost the Conan licence Marvel are unable to reprint it even when accompanying a non-Conan story.

The Man-Thing's debut in the magazine Savage Tales is written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and drawn by Gray Morrow. All contribute to subsequent tales which are written mainly by Steve Gerber, with contributions by Len Wein and Tony Isabella. The art is mostly by Val Mayerik and Mike Ploog with contributions by John Buscema, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Alfredo Alcala, Vincente Alcazar and Pat Broderick. As this produces many labels, some have been placed in a separate post.

Reading through this volume I've felt as though I was stuck in a swamp myself. It has been a very long and slow read and, although a variety of real world events have intervened to contribute to that, the series itself has not proved very inspiring at times. At the heart of it the series suffers two major problems. One is the complete mindlessness of the title creature, resulting in no dialogue or character development at all and making it hard to get interested in what happens to him. The other is the swamp environment not lending itself to many obvious story types and the ones that are do get used fall into a mixture of stiltedness or just plain weirdness.

There's a long tradition of swamp monsters and it's now unknown just whether the inspiration for the Man-Thing or the Swamp Thing came first. But it takes more than just a walking mound of slime to create excitement. For the Man-Thing there's an attempt to create some tragedy through his origin as we see scientist Ted Sallis betrayed to spies by his assistant/girlfriend and having to take a serum to survive, only for it to interact with the swamp and turn him into a shambling monster. As origins go it's nice and self-contained but with openings that could be used to spin off multiple further adventures. Unfortunately not too much is done in this volume with that. The monster seemingly has no coherent thoughts or memories so can neither embark on a quest for vengeance nor try to find a cure for his condition. Ellen appears again only in a special story from Monsters Unleashed as she recovers from her burns and returns to the swamp to deal with the memories. In doing so she comes face to face with what Ted has become, leading to a memorable moment as she demonstrates no fear, but in the regular series she is forgotten. The organisation Ellen works for, later revealed as AIM, don't catch on to what has really happened to Ted and come after the monster again and again. And so all we're left with is the stumbling monster wandering the swamps and influenced by the emotions of those around it.

That said the Man-Thing does demonstrate some interesting ideas such as the ability to literally ooze through any small opening and a touch that burns whenever the recipient demonstrates fear. Visually he's also a good design, even in black and white, and so makes for a series of strong images though I generally prefer Val Mayerik's depiction to Mike Ploog's. However I'm not sure how he displayed in colour - the front cover shows some very similar shades of green being used for both the monster himself and the background swamp. Fortunately the back cover has found some more distinguishing variations of green.

The character took a while to take off, not helped by Savage Tales only publishing one issue for some years. But the following year, after an appearance in Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales, which isn't particularly memorable in its own right but which does serve to thrash out some of the details of the character, the Man-Thing soon got an ongoing title in the pre-existing Fear, albeit with the title expanded to Adventure into Fear. This series had previously reprinted many monster stories from Marvel's pre-superheroes era, and the choice of this title helped to place the Man-Thing within the sense of a restoration of the non-superhero monsters. This is also reflected in the guest stars that appear or rather don't.

Once we get past the guest appearance in Ka-Zar's strip, there are no further substantial guest appearances included in this volume (although there are some cameos). This is despite the period covering guest appearances in Avengers, Daredevil and Marvel Two-in-One which show that the Man-Thing wasn't completely isolated from the wider Marvel universe. Such a limited interaction as presented here can allow a character to strive and thrive on their own two feet without interruptions, but it can also leave their deficiencies heavily exposed with precious little to fall back on. It's very much the latter effect here and I feel the series could have seriously benefited from either some appearances by familiar faces or else a fully developed supporting cast who actually hang around long enough to make a big enough impact.

The swamp is located in the Everglades in Florida and comes with all the traditional contents of a swamp from fierce crocodiles to hillbillies, as well as being the site for a proposed airport. But it also contains some decidedly fantastical elements. There is a hidden civilisation based around a Fountain of Youth. And the swamp is the site of the Nexus of All Realities, a gateway that links it to many dimensions containing all manner of weird oddities. The Man-Thing has become the guardian of the Nexus, offering the ironic spectacle of such a great responsibility falling upon such a mindless beast.

There's a tendency for the supporting cast to only appear briefly before disappearing. The first notable case is Jennifer Kale, a young amateur witch who develops a psychic link with the Man-Thing but it is subsequently broken. Her brother Andy and their grandfather Joshua, the head of a cult that seek to defend the Earth from the demons found in the Nexus, also appear, as does Jennifer's boyfriend Jaxon, offering some broader mythology but it's not really developed here. However the Kale family would go on to be tied into the continuity of another of Marvel's horror heroes but when I last tried to read a summary of the family history all I could grasp was just how much my head hurt. Elsewhere are two distinctly strange beings who come through the Nexus - Korrek, a barbarian who arrives through a jar of peanut butter, and Howard the Duck. To my surprise Howard is killed off early on and doesn't come back within this volume but his popularity would take him to great heights elsewhere. Later on we meet Richard Rory, a perpetual loser who repeatedly finds himself in the swamp. More than once he seems to hit it off with a woman who is also lost there, only for things to go wrong. However he does land a spot as a night-time radio DJ. The first such woman is Ruth Hart, on the run from a gang, and it at first seems as though she may have staying power but it comes to nothing.

Villains range from the earthly to the fantastic. At the grounded level the Man-Thing's most persistent nemesis is F. A. Schist, an industrialist intent on building an airport in the swamp, which brings him into recurrent conflict with the Man-Thing, including bringing in the scientist Professor Slaughter. Eventually Schist's greed consumes him when he finds the Fountain of Youth and is destroyed by the Man-Thing, but his vengeance seeking widow later comes after the monster. Elsewhere is the first appearance of the serial killer called the Foolkiller, who is seemingly killed off in his first appearance but would later come back. There are also a string of one-off criminals who pass through the swamp and usually come to grief at the hands of the Man-Thing, though things aren't always great for the victims. There's an especially nasty case of this in a two-part text story from Monsters Unleashed where an unsuccessful writer flees after his girlfriend was killed by a mugger only to get caught between a mad father trying to kill his daughter. But things are not always as they seem, as shown early on when the Man-Thing encounters a black man on the run from a racist and jealous sheriff, only to discover disputing claims between them. The more fantastical foes include various magical beings from the Nexus such as Thog the Nether-Spawn, Dakimh the Enchanter and various one-off named and unnamed demons. Or there's the first appearance of the alien Wundarr, a parody of Superman and his origin. A rare trip away from the swamp bring an encounter with ghost pirates led by Captain Fate, doomed to never reach port due to a curse inflicted by a crewmember they abandoned.

Giant-Size Man-Thing may have a title that everyone laughs at, but the first two issues are straightforward serious content, with the only change from the regular series being an increased use of characters from the wider Marvel universe. The first issue sees the Man-Thing battle the Glob, previously seen in the Incredible Hulk, due to the influence of the Cult of Entropy. The second sees a bunch of cameos, most notably from Mister Fantastic, as the Man-Thing gets briefly transported to New York in a partial parody of King Kong. But otherwise these bigger issues are just expanded versions of the normal sort of story for the series, which has now settled into a pattern of some edginess and social commentary wrapped up around monster and magic tales.

Overall this volume may have some imagination to it but it's the execution that is the problem. Ultimately the central character just isn't sufficiently exciting and there's not enough going on around him to make this compelling stuff. Steve Gerber's issues do include a degree of commentary and satire, but this approach can either date all too easily or else sink if the reader does not have the cultural background to spot the targets. What we're left with is a title that begins as a latter-day monster story in the vein of an earlier generation of Marvel that gets crossed with fantasy and absurdity in the hope that something in this mix will congeal. But the result just doesn't work for me.

Essential Man-Thing volume 1 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3 carries issues #53-77 and annuals #4-5. Most of the issues are written jointly by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio with a few by one or the other solo; the last few are by Tom DeFalco with one of his plots scripted by David Michelinie. One annual is plotted by Allyn Brodsky and scripted by Michelinie, the other is both written and drawn by Alan Kupperberg. The other annual is drawn by Jim Craig and Bob Budiansky whilst the regular series art is mainly by a mixture of John Byrne, George Pérez, Chic Stone, Jerry Bingham and Ron Wilson, with individual issues by Mike Nasser, Frank Springer and Alan Kupperberg. And yes, a separate post is needed to carry some of the labels. Bonus material consists of a diagram of the Project Pegasus complex that originally appeared in issue #53 but is placed at the very end of the volume here.

Per the usual for team-up titles, here's the rundown on the titled guest stars in each issue:

53. Quasar
54. Deathlok
55. Giant-Man [formerly Black Goliath]
56. Thundra
57. Wundarr
58. Aquarian
Annual 4. Black Bolt
59. The Human Torch
60. Impossible Man
61. Starhawk
62. Moondragon
63. Warlock
64. Stingray
65. Triton
66. Scarlet Witch
67. Hyperion
68. Angel
69. Guardians of the Galaxy
70. ?
71. Mr. Fantastic
72. The Inhumans
73. Quasar
74. Puppet Master
Annual 5. Hulk
75. Avengers
76. Iceman
77. Man-Thing

This is very much a list drawn from the obscure end of the Marvel universe, even if there are some big name exceptions including Marvel's then biggest TV star on a tour of guest appearances. But ever more so the series is a Thing solo title with guest stars rather than a genuine series with two heroes in one book. Indeed such is the dominance that issue #70 doesn't actually have a guest star, with a question mark on the cover and the nearest to fulfilling the role being the Yancy Street Gang who only show up for a few pages at the end.

Storywise we have a mixture of one-off issues with a guest star of the month and longer multi-part sagas that bring together a variety of heroes and even villains in rotation. One such example comes in the first six issues which comprise "The Pegasus Project" saga. This story sees Ben going to join the security service at the energy research facility and getting caught up in a multi-facetted plot undertaken by Dr Thomas Lightner, the younger half of Blacksun. Also working at the centre are Quasar and Black Goliath, the latter of whom is persuaded to change his name to "Giant-Man". (It takes Ben to point out that "Goliath" was a bad man and, more obviously, that it's clear he's black so there's no need to say it, in a subtle mini-backlash at the 1970s trend for giving numerous black heroes and villains the prefix "Black" in their name to the point that even the pre-existing Aquaman foe Black Manta was revealed as black.) The storyline manages to juggle in extra co-stars through a combination of occasionally giving the villain second billing and by building up the character of Wundarr to the point where he's transformed into the powerful, but about a decade out of date, hippie Aquarian. In general the individual chapters in the saga manage to bring enough diversity to keep them interesting but overall the story seems a little loose because Wundarr/Aquarian is rather detached from the rest of the events until the climax whilst the overall plot to sabotage and destroy the facility is somewhat pedestrian in its execution, even though it's at the behest of Roxxon, the regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, who want to maintain an energy monopoly. At the time the story was originally published the oil crisis was at its height so the story may have had more impact at the time, but nowadays the public focus in energy research is more on cutting emissions than replacing oil and so some of the impact is lost.

Another mini-epic sees the Thing and Starhawk first fight and then ally with "Her", formerly Paragon, and Moondragon as Her is on a quest to find the body of Adam Warlock. The story even resurrects Warlock's body, though not his soul, and also wraps up several loose ends from Warlock's adventures such as the real reason why he had expanded in size to the point where the Earth was smaller than his fingernail, how he soon shrank down, why the Soul Gem only began stealing souls when it did (and, implicitly, just why only one of the six Soul Gems had been seen to work on souls; however in the 1990s the point was solved by renaming them the Infinity Gems), the fate of Counter-Earth and the final encounter between Warlock and the High Evolutionary which was only predicted and never previously shown. The story also introduces an alien race headed by Sphinxor who are moving planets on behalf of the unseen powerful entities known as "the Beyonders" - that name being used four years before Secret Wars. Fortunately all the revelations are confined to a single issue but I wonder what Marvel Two-in-One readers who had never followed Warlock's adventures made of such a continuity heavy issue. The earlier issues are, fortunately, structured in such a way that readers less familiar with Her or Starhawk or Moondragon can share Ben's discovery whilst those who had read their past adventures can enjoy the story on a different level as it tidies up continuity. This tale was left out of Essential Warlock volume 1 and earlier reprintings of Warlock's saga, perhaps because of space, perhaps because only the third issue is directly relevant, but it doesn't feel a great loss and in any case the original publication was about three or four years after that series had ended.

Lurking in the story is Starhawk of the Guardians of the Galaxy, alongside his wife Aleta who has been merged with him, but there isn't too much more revealed about them. The whole team of Guardians appears in a later issue as Major Vance Astro tracks down his younger self, in the hope of convincing him to not become an astronaut and thus get trapped in space for a millennium. As we saw in the last volume, Ben is all too aware of how futile this can be, but the Major wants to at least spare one incarnation and succeeds, albeit at the cost of triggering his younger counterpart's mutant telekinetic powers. In later years the younger Vance would go on to be variously the Thing's sidekick, a founder member of the New Warriors and an Avenger but there's only a slight hint of all at that here.

The other epic in the volume is "The Serpent Crown Affair" in which the president of Roxxon seeks to acquire two parallel universe versions of the Serpent Crown and take over the country. It's a relatively tame story that only comes together in the third and final part and is also interrupted by other plot threads such featuring the likes of Thundra and Hyperion or the plight of the Hydro-Men, humans mutated into amphibians. Consequently this team-up with Stingray, Triton and, later on, the Scarlet Witch, feels rather slight and inconsequential even though it once more plays a role in tying up past continuity. Sub-plots in these issues later blossom out as Thundra finds herself teamed with Hyperion (of the Squadron Sinister) and steals an "Nth-Projector" in the hope of travelling to an alternate version of her world which has survived. Meanwhile the plight of the Hydro-Men is followed up in a later two-parter where Mr. Fantastic undertakes the research to produce a cure whilst Ben, some of the Inhumans and Stingray play games and get caught in a plot by the mysterious Maelstrom to steal the chemical that will reverse the effects of the Inhumans' Terrigan Mists that grant them their powers. Another issue follows up on the "Nth-Projector" and Roxxon as the Thing and Quasar travel to a world where dinosaurs and cavemen exist side by side and where the corporation is tapping a new supply of oil.

This attention to detail with plots and ideas flowing from one issue to another helps to make the bulk of these issues a strong coherent whole and it's easy to see why many consider this to be the golden age of the series. However there are still low points, particularly with the two annuals that are equally forgettable. One of them is a mundane team-up with Black Bolt of the Inhumans to take on a power enhanced Graviton. The other sees the Stranger bring together the Thing and the Hulk, the latter at the height of his fame due to the television series, in order to save the universe from the Greek god Pluto. (Surely he should be called "Hades"? All the other Greek gods are depicted with their Greek not Roman names.) Neither are good examples of the series as a whole, just random team-ups.

The regular issues have a mixture of returning and new foes, with first appearances by a number of them starting with the Grapplers, a group of female wrestlers. Consisting of Titania (a name used by a number of different characters over the years), Letha, Poundcakes and Screaming Mimi, now best known as Songbird. Then there are the Serpent Squad, initially consisting of Sidewinder, Anaconda, Black Mamba and Death Adder. Or there's  Maelstrom's and his minions Gronk, Helio, Phobius and, seemingly more powerful than any of the others, Deathurge. Making their first appearances here after featuring in other series are a number of foes. Naturally a good number were originally seen in Fantastic Four, such as Klaw, the Terrible Trio, consisting of Bull Brogin, "Handsome" Harry Phillips and Yogi Dakor, or the ex-minions of the Pyscho-Man Shellshock and Live Wire. A trip into the Negative Zone brings the first encounter between Blastaar and Annihilus. Coming from other series are Nuklo, previously seen in Avengers, Solarr, who first appeared in Captain America, the Toad, hailing from X-Men, and the Super-Adaptoid who debuted in Captain America's strip in Tales to Astonish. And it seems no Marvel series would be complete without the Circus of Crime, first seen in this incarnation in the early days of the Incredible Hulk but they've since been retconned as the successors to a group first seen in the 1940s Captain America Comics. Indeed it may be their appearance here that first makes that connection. Not all issues have a clear foe with some instead presenting a problem, such as the one where the Thing and the Human Torch have to mop up after a man determined to live out all his childhood goals before he turns 30. Elsewhere a test flight goes wrong and Ben crashes in the Man-Thing's swamp where he dreams of working with Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos during the Second World War - a surprising reference for 1981 as it would make Ben considerably older than he's normally portrayed as.

Also developed well is Ben's relationship with Alicia as he gets more concerned about the danger to her, resulting in a temporary break-up and then after reconciliation she agrees to move into the safer confines of the Baxter Building. Issue #74 is a Christmas special in which her stepfather the Puppet Master is released from prison and manipulates Ben and Alicia into taking him to a new supply of radioactive clay to make his puppets from; however after an encounter with Modred, whose mind has regressed to childhood, the Puppet Master sees the error of his ways and seeks to reform.

By now this series is firing on all pistons though at times the guest stars are either interchangeable or simply superfluous, leaving the book as very much the Thing's show. There are no issues where he's temporarily replaced by another big name hero, which is more than can be said for Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, and instead we get a strong string of adventures that flow well from one to the next. There's a clear desire to tidy continuity in some of Mark Gruenwald's co-authored stories but apart from the Warlock issue it never feels as though the series has been hijacked just to address obscure points. Instead we get a solid run of one good Thing after another.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3 - creator labels

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

Friday, 4 July 2014

Essential Defenders volume 2

This month will see the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy film. In the absence of any dedicated Essentials for any version of the team, let alone the modern one, I'm going to take a look at a volume containing one of the original's earliest storylines.

Essential Defenders volume 2 reprints Defenders #15-30 and Giant-Size Defenders #1-4 plus Marvel Two-in-One #6-7, Marvel Team-Up #33-35 and Marvel Treasury Edition #12. The regular Defenders issues are written first by Len Wein and then by Steve Gerber, with one by Bill Mantlo. Wein and Gerber write most of the Giant-Sizes with Tony Isabella writing a framing sequence in the first that carries reprints of past stories by Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Denny O'Neil from the likes of Incredible Hulk #3, Sub-Mariner Comics #41 and Strange Tales #145, representing solo tales from each of the three founders. The Marvel Two-in-One issues and the Marvel Treasury Edition are by Gerber whilst the Marvel Team-Up issues are by Gerry Conway. The regular issues are all drawn by Sal Buscema, as is the Marvel Treasury Edition, all of the Marvel Team-Ups and one of the Marvel Two-in-Ones, whilst the Giant-Sizes are by Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and Don Heck with the reprints carrying the art of Jack Kirby, Everett and Steve Ditko. The other Marvel Two-in-One issue is drawn by George Tuska. Inevitably the creator labels are in a separate post.

This volume suffers badly from the momentum being interrupted by various extra issues being included. Whilst the Marvel Two-in-One issues are part of a crossover with Defenders, and the Giant-Sizes invariably get collected with the regular series (though only the last one's storyline flows directly into the regular series), the Marvel Team-Up issues are utterly inconsequential to the ongoing series and feel as though they've been included solely to make up the numbers with guest appearances. And the Marvel Treasury Edition is a Howard the Duck special in which he teams up with the Defenders, but the entire tone of the piece is very much that of Howard's series rather than the Defenders, in spite of the two sharing the same writer, and once again it feels rather out of place here. Wouldn't it have been better to advance the regular title a few more issues rather then including these diversions that drag things out? But in spite of them the series has now got a clear sense of its purpose and cast.

By now there's a clear core membership consisting of Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie and Nighthawk, but with a good number of other heroes passing through the pages. It isn't always clear in issues themselves with other heroes as to who is a temporary member and who is merely a guest star, but in Giant-Size #4 captions mention the wider heroes Doctor Strange could perhaps call upon and lists the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer and "...perhaps even Power Man ... Daredevil ... Daimon Hellstrom ... Hawkeye" in what is effectively the first canonical list of all the team's "members". But the nature of the beast is such that only the core regulars can be clearly identified. Still it's the heroes on this list who are turned to when most of the regulars plus Yellowjacket are captured by the Sons of the Serpent. Notably steps are taken such that contact methods are cut before the Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer or Hawkeye can be reached. It would also seem from these lists that Professor X, the Thing and, in the previous volume, Namorita all fall firmly on the guest star side of things, as do the Guardians of the Galaxy and Howard the Duck who pop up later on in the volume. On a different level Valkyrie's sort of ex-husband Jack Norriss winds up aiding the team more than once, even getting transported to the future, but his presence, though useful, isn't really desired either.

Instead we have a clear core membership, and even ex-membership, though the team hasn't taken on the hassle of constitutions, approval processes and formal initiations. The four core members are clearly happy to work together in spite of their disparate origins, powers and personalities. Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer have both left the team and in spite of the volume's cover, reproducing that of Giant-Size Defenders #1, they don't actually show up in the present. Their sole appearances are confined to reprints of past solo adventures in Giant-Size #1, though curiously whilst Namor's is incorporated into the issue's narrative, and thus represented here, the Silver Surfer's reprint was separate and is thus left out. Oddly the introductory blurb that appears on each issue until #25 continues to list Namor as a part of "the greatest NON-TEAM in history", suggesting someone failed to notice that he had left in issue #14 or that his motivation was precisely because the Defenders were now clearly becoming a coherent team.

Of the regulars, it's inevitable the two without their own titles who get the most character development. Valkyrie is steadily coming to terms with being an artificial construct with no past of her own, placed in the body of a mortal woman, and trying to discover more about Barbara Noriss's life of which she has no memory. This leads to a trek to Barbara's home town and encounters with first old friends and then her father, all the time being unable to return their feelings for her. The worst comes with Barbara's husband Jack, who just cannot comprehend that it's not actually his wife in her body and he often acts the devoted, defending husband to a woman who neither asks for it nor needs it. Despite the problems of her past, Valkyrie makes the best of her situation and more than proves herself in battle. Her only weakness is one that feels rather out of place for a Marvel hero and especially a Bronze Age hero - she is unable to fight another female, whether human, alien or robotic, without succumbing to crippling pains. It feels more at home with a vulnerability to fire or crumbling at the sight of a green rock or the inability to use a power against the colour yellow rather than the personality flaws, power limitations or physiological factors that usually restrain Marvel heroes. But in spite of this Valkyrie serves well as an equal member of the team. There are hints early on that she and Nightcrawler might become an item but it never comes off. However at one point he buys an ex-riding school to serve as a stable for Valkyrie's horse Aragorn. Otherwise Nightcrawler is steadily building himself up in his heroic role but also finding that things in his company aren't always in line with his orders. He may be a rich socialite but he also has his vulnerable side, especially when he and girlfriend Trish Starr are caught in a car explosion that costs her her left arm and then he declines to offer sufficient commitment and she leaves him. Meanwhile the Hulk is in one of his best periods, having finally found the permanent friends he has been looking for for so long and seems calmer than usual. He's also getting better at remembering things and realising other points such that his own skin makes him a target of the Sons of the Serpent. Doctor Strange is very much in his traditional form, though at times his powers are used a little too easily to resolve a situation. However this is rare and otherwise he serves well as the team's leading hand.

The various additional issues offer a variety of adventures, ranging from the needless such as the Marvel Team-Up fights with the Meteorite Man, formerly the Looter, or Jeremiah, a religious fanatic mutant, to the team building such as the Giant-Sizes. The first fills out details on the founding Defenders and then subsequent issues introduce the team to a range of guest stars including Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan, Daredevil, Yellowjacket and then the Guardians of the Galaxy. The foes in these issues are just as diverse, including individual Defenders' old foes such as the demon Asmodeus from Doctor Strange, Nighthawk's former villainous team the Squadron Sinister or Yellowjacket's old foe Egghead. There's also more general Marvel foes such as the Badoon, the Grandmaster or the Prime Mover, as well as new ones of whom the most significant is Korvac. Over in the Treasury Edition the Defenders and Howard tackle the Band of the Bland, a group of deliberately unoriginal villains made up of Dr. Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Black Hole, Spanker and Tillie the Hun.

Over in the regular issues there's a succession of epics against a mixture of established and new foes, with quite a few ramifications for the wider Marvel universe. We kick off with one of the last X-Men appearances from their wilderness years as Professor X sides with the Defenders against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; Magneto's hubris leads him to create Alpha the Ultimate Mutant who judges the Brotherhood unworthy and deages them to babies. (Now there's at least an interim solution to the problem of Magneto being tied to real world history without noticeably ageing.) Then a team-up with Luke Cage, Power Man brings the first ever appearance of the Wrecking Crew as the Wrecker acquires a team around him. Notably the team's black member, Thunderball, is the most intelligent of them, being a nuclear physicist. Valkyrie's quest for her past brings both a crossover with the Thing's title Marvel Two-in-One and also a battle with the Enchantress and the Executioner then with the Nameless One. Then there's an extended clash with the Sons of the Serpent, Marvel's stock group of racists with elements of the Ku Klux Klan about them. This adventure brings the return of several heroes including Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Power Man and the Son of Satan, but also the revelation that the Sons are led by a black man trying to "escape 'my own people'" and to enhance Nighthawk's company's profits. There are also some one-off issues including the introduction of the Headmen, a weird group of villains with distinctly odd heads whether Gorilla Man, a human one grafted onto an ape, Shrunken Bones, whose skeleton has reduced leaving the flesh loose, or Chondu, a mystic whose head has been grafted onto other bodies. And there's Tapping Tommy, who wants revenge for a succession of failures including the musical genre and takes it out on Nighthawk for buying an old studio to turn into housing, using robots in the process.

One of the biggest epics comes near the end as the Defenders meet the Guardians of the Galaxy and travel with them into a dark future where mankind has overcome self-inflicted disasters and invasion to build an empire with bio-engineering diversifying the human form, but the human race has now been conquered by the Brotherhood of the Badoon. It's a tale that incorporates time travel, including Major Vance Astro meeting his younger self, multiple worlds, the fierce gender divide amongst the Badoon, various alien worlds, the mysterious Starhawk and a showdown that begins a revolution. The story shows real epic and ambition, helping to expand the original Guardians mythology and roster no end without feeling like an intrusion on the Defenders. Nor does it end neatly, with Doctor Strange transporting his team back in time upon realising that Starhawk embodies the human race and its hope.

Steve Gerber's writing takes on both a distinctly odd turn and a degree of social commentary, though it's not as pronounced as his work on Howard the Duck. In the Sons of the Serpent story there's also a look at the horrors of the slums and signs of hope when Jack Norriss's surge of courage to save "his wife" spurs a watching crowd of whites to attack the Sons. Later there's an extended history of the Earth from the present day until the 31st century, taking in not only the continuity of Killraven but also ecological collapse, the dangers of unfettered capitalism destroying the environment, colonialism from both ends and much more. Elsewhere we get the odd situations and characters, with the first appearance of the mysterious Elf with a Gun who pops up to shoot a random person for seemingly no reason at all. However one thing I don't like about Gerber's work is the resort to a page of mainly text with a single drawn panel and the story advanced in narration, a device he resorts to more than once. It feels like the issue in question was poorly paced and this was an effort to rectify it.

When the regular series is in full flow then this volume is generally quite good and fun to read, with a wonderful diversity of scope and characterisation, not to mention the weirder elements. However when the series gets interrupted by numerous specials, crossovers and guest appearances then it the momentum frequently fails and the volume grinds to a halt. It would have been much better to leave out all the Marvel Team-Ups and the Marvel Treasury Edition and just concentrate on the core Defenders a bit more.

Essential Defenders volume 2 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 2

Essential Wolverine volume 2 consists of issues #24-47. The writing sees the end of Peter David's run plus a later fill-in issue, a brief run by (Mary) Jo Duffy and the start of Larry Hama's long run. The art includes a long stretch by Marc Silvestri, plus individual issues by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Bill Jaaska, Larry Stroman and Gerald DeCaire.

Coming from the early years of the Essentials, it's unsurprising that this volume restricts itself solely to Wolverine's main series and does not include his strips from Marvel Comics Presents, with the most notable storyline, "Weapon X", running during the same period. Understandably there's too much Marvel Comics Presents material for later editions to even try to correct the omission, but nor has the series been touched by the Essentials and given its own volume, so once again key Wolverine material has to be sought elsewhere, including a major part of his origin. Fortunately there are no overt references to the Marvel Comics Presents strip, and Wolverine's mysterious past often allows for introductions out of the blue so return appearances by characters introduced in the strip don't stick out, so on a raw reading it's possible to not even realise there were other adventures published that are not included here. But once that awareness is there the lost opportunity stands out all too well.

For those reading just the issues collected here, Wolverine's background remains mysterious to the readers and, at times, to the man himself, not helped by different writers seemingly taking separate approaches to just how much he appears to remember about it. In issue #25 we get offered a possible glimpse at part of his origin. Whilst guarding and babysitting the son of a crimelord, he tells a bedtime story about a Canadian boy who was cast out into the wilderness for being small and weak, but grew up with wolverines and learned to fight when trappers came. It's clear from the pictures just who the boy is intended to be, but is the story meant to be imaginary or is it in fact a true account of Wolverine's past? Later in issue #34 Wolverine thinks to himself that he can't remember a lot of his past and doesn't know how he came to be wandering around the Canadian wilderness. However an old Mountie slowly realises that Wolverine is both a ferocious corporal he served under in the parachute divisions during the D-Day landings and also a stranger he long ago shot at in the wilderness, mistaking him for the beast known as the "Hunter in the Darkness". Subsequently we discover Wolverine is familiar to some participants in the Spanish Civil War but he can't quite remember it until he and Puck get thrown back in time to it (with the complication that Wolverine starts partaking in events and photographs that Puck can't recall him being originally there for). Then Sabretooth claims to be Wolverine's father though a blood test soon disproves it, yet according to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. the claim is based upon a genuine belief, though he won't elaborate on this. Elsewhere issue #26 sees him relive part of his days in Japan and track down the murderer of an old friend. The whole result is a character who remains an enigma but it's not too clear if there's an actual overall plan that the writers are working to, or if they're just tossing out random ideas that will ultimately not all match up.

Peter David's two issues both have the aura of fillers, rather than any substantial conclusion to his run or latter-day revisitation. The first is a piece of macabre humour as an assassin called the "Snow Queen" finds her plans disrupted when a child steals her briefcase, leading to a chase through the back streets of Madripoor and a grim discovery at the end. The second is at the far end of the volume and sees Logan tackling a drug crazed mad man in suburbia who needs to be neutralised, whilst remembering how he and Silver Fox had a dog which caught rabies and had to be put down but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Jo Duffy's work also starts in filler mode, even though it drops in pieces about Wolverine's past in both Japan and the Canadian wilderness, but then switches into another feature common to the era - the multi-part "biweekly" saga when a book's frequency was briefly increased to twice a month (perhaps that's why there's no annual here). "The Lazarus Project" winds up serving as the winding down of the title's "Madripoor era", throwing in a guest appearance by Karma of the New Mutants and the writing out of Jessica Drew and Lindsay McCabe. The story sees Wolverine briefly lose his memory though in the process he experiences the atrocity of a village being wiped out for an utterly insignificant McGuffin.

The arrival of Larry Hama for what would be quite a long run sees a bold shift in the title's focus, with the Madripoor setting and the various supporting characters rapidly abandoned, albeit with a final brief storyline that also takes in a trip to Japan. Taking their place are adventures set mainly back in North America with an increased use of guest stars. Fortunately there aren't any crossovers within this volume, but it feels like the series is being dragged into being a mere offshoot of the main X-Men titles (the last issue in the volume is from about the time when a second X-Men series was launched) rather than continuing to carve out its own distinctive niche. It's a pity, but perhaps Hama didn't have enough confidence in the Madripoor set-up to make it continue to work. Or maybe reader demand wanted Wolverine on more traditional territory. Equally Hama may have been wary of repeating himself. By this time he had about eight years of the G.I. Joe books under his belt and he may have been conscious of having already depicted a man with ninja connections and a mysterious past so there was a risk of turning Wolverine into another Snake-Eyes. Instead Hama's run, or at least the early part reproduced here, takes the series back into the superhero mainstream.

That's not to say there aren't some occasional detours, such as "Blood and Claws" which sees Wolverine, Lady Deathstrike and Puck (from Alpha Flight) temporarily thrown back in time to the Spanish Civil War, with the complications that they are reliving at least Puck's past. Lady Deathstrike remains a constant theme back in the present day, with her Reavers preparing a trap with two robots, one a duplicate of Wolverine dubbed "Albert" and the other a five year old girl called "Elsie Dee" who is largely comprised of explosives. This leads into a lengthy story as the two robots gain increasing intelligence and start to think for themselves, with Elsie Dee coming to admire Wolverine even though she is programmed to get close to him and then automatically detonate the explosives within her. Both Albert and Elsie survive seeming destruction to keep coming back. Just to add to the complications are the return of Sabretooth and the appearance of Cable which is not at all a sales chaser at a time when he was one of the hottest X-Men characters and giving Wolverine a run for his money as the pre-eminent man with a mysterious past. The whole thing is interspersed with encounters with the Morlocks as well as with various one off killers. There's a mad man who enjoys torturing animals until Logan sets a real wolverine on him, and another who murders several pregnant women having discovered one of them will give birth to a baby who will grow up to be something special. On a different level is Molly Doolin, the vengeance seeking daughter of the Canadian Mountie who died pursuing the "Hunter in the Darkness".

Puck, Storm, Forge and Jubilee all make recurring appearances throughout these issues, but there's no real indigenous supporting cast introduced and developed to replace those from the Madripoor days. We're left with just Wolverine himself, a man with a limited past that generates some interest but which can also limit the opportunity for actual development since the past isn't being properly explored here (or the origin of his adamantium being explored elsewhere referenced here). Instead the main focus is on multi-part adventures with lots of action rather than a great deal of development. It was an early sign of the decompression movement that would see comics drawn out without a great deal actually happening in them. This volume also comes from an era when artists were becoming ever more prominent and at times comics slowed stories down just to emphasise the art. It's hard to resist feeling this was the forerunner of the Image style when Marc Silvestri would be one of that company's seven founders.

These issues were originally published in the early 1990s, which was the time when I first discovered Marvel superhero comics - perhaps a slightly later arrival than many but I plead the mitigating circumstances that Marvel UK had largely dropped out of superheroes for four years, focusing instead on licensed toy and TV tie-ins and that Marvel US titles had no distribution that I knew of in my home town (my local newsagent didn't stock any comics at all). I should in theory take to this volume with all the instinctive loyalty that most people have to their personal "Golden Age" in just about anything, with it being the time when they first got drawn in. But instead I find this volume rather washes me over. Perhaps it was because the comics market was simply so large at the time and Wolverine is a distinct niche appeal that didn't draw me in then and so these issues evoke no nostalgia whatsoever now.

It's a pity because whilst there are some good moments and issues within this volume - my favourite is issue #34 with the hunt in the Canadian wilderness - the overall volume sees the series dump its unique setting and tone in favour of a rather generic style. The result is a rather generic and less than spectacular run. Still it does get bonus points for being a series from the era that doesn't get sucked in to endless crossovers.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Essential Avengers volume 2

Essential Avengers volume 2 contains issues #25-46 plus King-Size Special #1 (the annual by another name) and also, in early editions, the story from Tales to Astonish #27 that introduce Henry Pym, later Ant-Man. The first half of the volume and the Tales to Astonish story are written by Stan Lee and the second half and the special are by Roy Thomas. Most of the issues and the special are drawn by Don Heck, with the last few by John Buscema and one by George Bell. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by Jack Kirby.

This volume sees a continuation of the general problem that the Avengers are a club of heroes assembled for no particular reason, though as time passes they accumulate more and more ties that keep them together. Within these pages are the first examples of several longstanding themes that recur time and again throughout the history of the team's membership. There's the first return of former members when the Wasp and Giant-Man come back, albeit with the latter now using the name "Goliath". There's the first cases of heroes hanging around with the Avengers without actually holding formal membership, with Hercules eventually granted it after several issues but the Black Widow instead choosing to retire. There are extended absences for individual members as first the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver go to sort out their powers and then later Captain America spends some time sorting out matters in his own strip. There's the first great reunion in the annual as "the Original Avengers join Today's Avengers", although with the Hulk absent it boils down to just Iron Man and Thor being drawn into a single great adventure with the regular team. And we see further confirmation of Captain America's central role in the team when he is unanimously chosen as the chairman for this reunion, being the link between the original and current team.

By this point the team's pretensions to being the Marvel version of the Justice League of America have been abandoned. With Marvel already having prominent teams of superheroes in the form of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, plus big name heroes like the Hulk and Spider-Man whose set-up made it impossible to slot them into this sort of team, it was simply impossible to assemble all the company's big name heroes into a single team. So instead the focus was shifted to mainly featuring characters who lacked their own strip and develop them in their own way. Captain America is still around as the lynch pin of the team but at times he's absent because of events over in Tales of Suspense. Notably by the time Giant-Man/Goliath and the Wasp return, their own strip in Tales to Astonish had ended, thus freeing them up to be developed here. Goliath gets some good material at first as he discovers he's trapped in a ten foot tall form, unable to change size without killing himself. This leads him to search for a cure, eventually enlisting the aid of scientist Bill Foster to strengthen blood cells.

Not all the tales show such advancement, and at times it seems as though the series is wading through leftover ideas from elsewhere. The very first issue sees the team's first encounter with Doctor Doom (at least until the retroactive one-shot Avengers #1&1/2 was published over thirty years later), but his primary motivation is just to impress the Fantastic Four and use the Avengers as hostages to lure in his most regular foes. The issue does once more raise the idea that Doom and Rang/Rama-Tut could somehow be the same person at different points in time, but it's an idea that has never worked for me and I think this is the last time it was raised. The next two issues see the team defeat an attempt by Attuma to flood the world and so once again it feels like the Avengers are mopping up leftovers from Fantastic Four, and this is just reinforced by an interlude involving the Human Torch's old foe, the Beetle.

The series does pick up a bit and start developing some of its own creations and introducing a few more foes, beginning with the introduction of the Collector. As is often the case with big name villains introduced in this era, his appearance and motivations are much tamer than he would go on to be. Here he could be a human for all that's revealed about him and the difference that it makes. This is followed by the first regular Avengers appearance of the Black Widow, brainwashed into once more serving the Soviet Union and now recruiting both the Swordsman and Power Man to battle the Avengers and try to recruit Hawkeye. Then we get a slight reversion to old Fantastic Four ideas in the form of a rather dull tale of a power struggle within a lost civilisation in South America, but it's hard to care for either the Keeper of the Flame or Prince Rey as they struggle over a cobalt flame.

We then get what is probably the best remembered tale in this volume as the Avengers battle against the Sons of the Serpent, a thinly disguised parody of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a story that puts the Avengers through some hard choices when the Sons take Captain America hostage and try to recruit the Avengers to their side. It's also one of the most overt examples of the series reflecting turbulence in the wider world, and it's to the credit of Lee and Heck that we are never left in any doubt whose side the Avengers are on even when Goliath has them pretend to support the Sons or when Captain America is impersonated. However the story ducks out on an uncomfortable truth by revealing the Supreme Serpent to be foreign Communist General Chen, rather than showing how such hatred can be home grown. And under a new writer the series is more casual when it comes to apartheid South Africa which is briefly visited in the annual, although it's not explicitly named as such but the presence of diamonds and what appear to be a sea of white faces are telling. Though the country primarily serves as a backdrop to Thor and Hawkeye's battle with the Living Laser, it feels rather casual to pass through a country with such practices and fail to even say anything. Equality is not something that only matters in a single country.

The story also sees a major step forward as the Black Widow comes to the Avengers' aid, having finally turned against the Soviets. From this point onwards she is on the path to becoming one of the most prominent of Marvel's female heroes, though it's a complex path with S.H.I.E.L.D. intervening to send her on a mission to China where it appears she has defected once more. The Avengers are mixed in their reaction to their new ally, with Goliath reluctant to see the Avengers turn into a "rest home for retired villains", but eventually they get to the point of considering her membership though her China mission and injuries prevent it from happening at this stage.

As with a number of other Silver Age Essential volumes, this one shows the end of Stan Lee's run on the title, with Roy Thomas succeeding him here, and once again Lee bows out on a cliffhanger in a rather underwhelming adventure. Although the Living Laser would go on to be a significant recurring foe, coming back even here in the annual, his first story sees him motivated by a romantic crush and feels rather tame. Had Lee left just one issue earlier he would have departed with the climax of the first Sons of the Serpent storyline, a much more impressive note to go out on. The Living Laser story also appears to have been extended at short notice as issue #33 ends with the caption "Next: Goliath changes!" but this doesn't happen until #35.

Roy Thomas's run begins by concluding the Living Laser story with the added twist of him seeking fame by aiming to help a revolution in Costa Verde, a Latin American military dictatorship. The story ends with both sides defeated and the remnants of the army declaring a democracy, but more notable is Captain America's declaration to the army "We wish in no way to interfere in your country's private matters!" Coming in late 1966 it's a surprisingly early declaration of non-interventionism, even if delivered at a point when the country's immediate problems are being seemingly solved. The subject of intervention in other countries is not something that can be easily debated in a few panels, but such declarations can at times feel like an over casual dismissal of problems and suffering around the world. On a lighter note the story sees Goliath regain the power to change size, having sufficiently healed his body. And there's a fun moment for continuity buffs as Captain America's shield gets destroyed by lasers and he has to resort to a new one - try matching that with the later position that his shield is indestructible and he's had it more or less since 1941.

The run continues with another forgettable set of foes in the form of the alien Ixar and his robotic Ultroids, though the resolution when the Black Widow exploits her non-Avengers status to threaten Ixar's life is a telling sign of how far she still has to travel. Then we get the arrival of Hercules, initially under the spell of the Enchantress, and he seems to be a substitute for Thor. There follows a brief encounter with the Mad Thinker, a further foe from Fantastic Four, and his brie team of henchmen the " Triumvirate of Terror", consisting of Hammerhead, Piledriver and Thunderboot but none are any relations to any others who may have used those names. In an epilogue to a storyline in Tales of Suspense, the team clash with the Sub-Mariner as they search for the Cosmic Cube, which ends up thrown away by the Mole Man. Yet another pair of Fantastic Four foes appear in the form of Diablo and Dragon Man, with the latter seemingly destroyed, and one is wondering if the team will get any big battles with more personalised foes.

It's not a long wait. Issue #43 introduces the Red Guardian, a Communist conscious counterpart to Captain America in every way, though curiously he's developed by the Chinese rather than the Soviets. In a fierce battle he nearly defeats Captain America but the latter is more experienced and only subdued by outside intervention, a point that annoys the Red Guardian's honour. In a twist he's revealed to be the previously assumed dead husband of the Black Widow and he meets his end nobly, sacrificing himself to save her. Still the story gives them both a degree of redemption, even though the Black Widow ends up injured and briefly retires from the costume instead of accepting Avengers membership. The final couple of regular issues see old foes from individual member's strips, with the Super-Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense now finally clashing with the whole Avengers, then Goliath's old foe the Human Top returns with the new name of Whirlwind.

The annual also features some old foes as the Mandarin assembles the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Living Laser, the Swordsman and Power Man as part of a plan to conquer the world. This story is the one most like the standard format for the contemporary Justice League of America as the threat comes in three less forms, resulting in the heroes splitting into separate teams to go to different locations to tackle each part before reuniting for the showdown conclusion. The addition of Iron Man and Thor just adds to the JLA influence as it results in something resembling Earth's Mightiest Heroes (a phrase not yet in use). As a one-off celebratory piece it works, but it's a good thing the regular series didn't get caught up in such a formula.

Throughout the volume there are various signs that the Avengers are all developing in different ways, though some more than others. Most notably Hawkeye is fast maturing and coming to respect Captain America even more, getting beyond the angry hot head he can be at times. However Quicksilver is increasingly concerned about attitudes to mutants and his thoughts are getting steadily more angry. The Wasp who returns to the team is more mature than before, contributing more in action as an equal member and rarely commenting on her male colleagues, though there is a lapse to her older habits when Iron Man and Thor briefly return. This is a team that feels ever more coherent and strong, showing why they stay together even if why they're there remains a bit of a mystery.

Overall this volume is okay, but not particularly exciting. It's critical in showing the development of the team and the on-off nature of its membership but beyond that it doesn't really excite that much or contain any issues that particularly stand out. Too often it seems to draw on the entrails from Fantastic Four rather than continuing to develop its own strong set of recurring foes and situations.
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