Friday, 24 July 2015

Essential Thor volume 6

Essential Thor volume 6 reprints issues #221 to #247. The writing sees the end of Gerry Conway's run and the start of Len Wein's with the transition covered by Roy Thomas and Bill Mantlo. The art is mainly by John Buscema with individual issues by Rich Buckler and Sal Buscema.

This volume shows the series caught in its ongoing dilemma over just how far it should stray from the Lee-Kirby era. There are some attempts to create new characters and chart new ground but at other times the series retreats to not just the set-up of the 1960s but even that of a particular part of the 1960s. One attempt at moving forward is to provide Thor with a regular sidekick and there are two in this set of issues. The first is Hercules who, after a fight due to an impersonation, rapidly sides with Thor as they set off to tackle Pluto and Ares in order to rescue Krista the Valkyrie. It's almost the archetypal adventure story as two friendly heroes set off together on a great quest, watching out for one another as they go. Hercules is often a difficult character to handle because he's presented as the character of legend with all his incredible tales taken as part of his actual history (whereas Thor strays more from the recorded legend, as noted on panel by a messenger from UCLA) and this can create a man who is too strong and ridiculous to work in stories. But here he comes across well, a loyal dependable friend of Thor's who can be relied on at all times, at least until he accepts an offer to go off to Los Angeles and lecture at UCLA on the truth behind Greek myths, and who never enters into serious rivalry between the Norse and Greek gods. The contradictions between the two sets of legends go unspoken and soon a third is added to the equation.

The biggest developments come with the introduction of deities from the Egyptian pantheon as we see the arrival of Osiris, Isis and their son Horus as a prelude to a battle with Horus's brother, Seth the god of death. In the process, Odin is transformed into Atum-Re, the forebearer of the Egyptian gods with a hint that this is actually a restoration to an earlier incarnation. Marvel has generally been rather coy about having so many different sets of gods running around the universe and yet there are clear contradictions between their myths about the creation and growth of the Earth and much overlap between the different responsibilities of the gods. And there are a number of common themes across pantheons - Horus may have a much friendlier relationship with his father than Thor with Odin or Hercules with Zeus, but once again the biggest rivalry within the pantheon is between the (comparatively) young prince and his brother, as with Thor and Loki. And the greatest villain in the pantheon is the god of death, as with the Greek pantheon and even the Norse has used Hela as one of the more recurring foes within the pantheon after Loki. The result is that the introduction of the Egyptian pantheon offers some diversity of characters but continues to follow structures already established with the Norse and Greek gods rather than offering up much that's truly diverse. Even the hint that Odin may somehow also be the founding entity of another pantheon is rather swept over in favour of implying that Osiris, Isis and Horus have merely transformed him into believing he is Atum-Re. Were he the actual Atum-Re it could have made for some interesting tales exploring the various connections and common foes between the different deities, providing a wealth of original ideas for years to come. But instead it's all brushed over for now.

There are a handful of other new foes and situations introduced in this volume but few make much of an impact. Little can be said about Armak the First Man whose spirit possesses a modern day man during a seance, whilst the first encounter with Kamo Tharnn, now better known as the Possessor, is more notable for the successful taking of his powerful Runestaff that offers hope of a cure for Jane Foster than for this strange man in space himself. Right at the end of the volume there is a trip to the Latin American country of Costa Verde where a revolution is underway with the help of Firelord, under the control of the mysterious Gypsy, mistress to the revolution's leader El Lobo. Meanwhile in Asgard, Odin is turning into a tyrant, now advised by the malevolent Igron, but this story thread is not resolved within this volume. Odin has previously spent some time wandering Earth as an amnesiac elderly man called Orrin, supposedly to improve his understanding but it doesn't last long before the Egyptians show up. More earthly moments come from ongoing run-ins with Detective Sergeant, later Lieutenant, Blumkenn, who supplies Thor and Hercules with information about ongoing problems but gets somewhat frustrated with all the action and damage in the area.

The other major introduction in this volume is Firelord, a new herald of Galactus who earns his freedom at the end of his initial adventure when together with Thor and Hercules they have successfully dealt with Ego the Living Planet. Thor is charged with finding a replacement herald and produces the Destroyer armour, with which he and Hercules have battled once more in these pages. As for the Living Planet, we get an origin for Ego but it's rather convoluted as we learn how his people tried to survive a supernova by entering suspended animation, only for the supernova to come early and fuse the last man standing to the planet, consuming all the other lives on it. The clear intention is to make him similar to and a contrast from Galactus, casting both as tragic figures who were once ordinary men now turned into cosmic nightmares, but it's hard to feel much sympathy for Ego at all.

There's a clear liking for Firelord in spite of the cosmic herald feeling somewhat out of place in a series based on Norse mythology as he keeps reappearing, often being used by other malevolent forces such as the Gypsy with her hereditary mind-jewel that allows her to take control of men's wills or by Loki, who makes yet another attempt to conquer Asgard and then Earth, this time with the direct force of an army, but it's one of the most forgettable of battles. The same can be said of the confrontation with the Dweller in Darkness, though the encounter with the Absorbing Man has a wonderful scene where Thor runs away into a toy department only to trick the Absorbing Man into absorbing the properties of a cardboard copy of Mjolnir. For once there truly is someone who can't punch their way out of a paper bag. There's a battle amongst the Trolls, with Ulik kidnapping Jane to force Thor to help in the battle against Ulik's rival Geirrodur and his minion Zotarr but neither side's motivations are entirely altruistic.

One of the more advanced epics comes towards the end of the volume as Zarrko the Tomorrow Man returns, accompanied by his giant Servitor robot. Now the ruler of a land in the 50th century, he comes seeking Thor and the Warriors Three's help to tackle the Time-Twister, a strange group of aliens moving backwards through time and bringing death and destruction wherever they go. The ultimate showdown comes at the Temple at the End of Time where they all encounter the mysterious He Who Remains at the end of it all. It's a strong piece that takes time travel, which can often be a confused concept when used for anything other than to bring characters and situations together, and weaves a tale in which existence is threatened by seemingly unstoppable foes. It also has a strong comeuppance as Zarrko returns to his realm only to discover that his successful conflict has had side effects upon the timeline.

Towards the last third of the volume Hercules drops aside as an interim writer quickly phases him out. But there's a clear successor waiting in the wings who rapidly becomes Thor's new sidekick, getting involved in all his remaining adventures whether intentionally or not. Jane Foster returns but has been one of a number of people who attempt suicide under the influence of the Dweller in Darkness, though this is only discovered after Thor has defeated him, and the attempt has left her in a seemingly incurable condition. Despite not having seen her for years Thor is deeply upset over this and spends a succession of issues in near mourning. Jane is only saved when Sif and Hercules obtain Kamo Tharnn's Runestaff. But in order to restore Jane's spirit Sif transfers her own life force into her. Thus at a stroke all the years of building up Sif as Thor's romantic interest are swept aside and we're back to the old days of Jane, reinforced by Thor making a much greater use than in recent years of his Donald Blake identity as he resumes his regular medical practice. Jane even resumes part of her old role of being a regular damsel in distress to be captured by various foes as a prelude to drawing Thor into the action. This is very much a step back to the old days, albeit with Jane now aware of Thor's dual identity, and it doesn't always feel like a reversion for the better.

But in one regard there has been some development with Jane presented as a much stronger and tougher character than before. At times there are hints that she is channelling the power of Sif, in particular the little-seen power to bypass time and space, but at others it seems as though she's strengthened up on her own accord. She insists on going off on adventures with Thor and won't take no for an answer, holds her own against foes to the point where she's overpowering revolutionaries and besting the Gypsy in physical conflict, standing up to Geirrodur with a spear and more. A lot of time has passed since she was last a regular in the series and this was now an era when portrayals of female characters were moving beyond the old fawning wallflowers. Odin still orders Thor to reject her, an order that is refused, but this may be as much down to Odin's sudden shift in behaviour as anything else. Otherwise Jane is being presented more and more as a strong match for Thor, even to the point of freeing him from mental control. But simply rehashing the 1960s adventures with more modern sensibilities isn't enough and ultimately Jane's return to replace Sif is a major retrograde step.

Overall this volume is so so. It does try to introduce some new elements but doesn't really succeed in finding strong ones that stick, whether because they feel out of touch with the basis of the series or because of a reluctance to explore them in full or because they're just not up to much. Otherwise we get yet more reuses of the same old foes and the return of Jane literally in place of Sif. Some of the individual stories are good but in general this is a series that doesn't know just how to get out of its traditional comfort zone.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The New Universe - what went wrong?

Looking back it's actually surprising that the New Universe lasted as long as it did, with some titles going for nearly three years. However there were other major changes along the way with half the titles cancelled after a single year, some major retooling of the surviving books and big events. In later years Marvel would probably have pulled the plug much sooner, but perhaps it had a more supportive approach in the late 1980s that meant struggling series would be given more of a chance to find an audience.

But regardless of how much of a chance the New Universe was given, it ultimately failed. And unlike some initial failures it didn't leave behind a cult fan following that sought out every issue and demanded a return. Instead during the 1990s New Universe issues could often be found clogging up the deep discount boxes and most of the small number of revisits came because one or other of the creators wanted to.

So what went wrong? Was it entirely down to the quality of the titles themselves, was it because the overall idea was something the market wasn't interested in, or was it part of wider issues in industry and fan politics?

Looking through the titles it's hard to escape the feeling they were thrown together in a hurry, undermining a lot of the hype. A lot of the series do not actually conform to the basic concept, whether because of pre-existing fantastic technology (Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, Nightmask or Kickers, Inc.), aliens (Star Brand or Justice), existing psychic powers (Psi-Force) or even having nothing to do with powers at all (Mark Hazzard: Merc), even if some of these specifically interact with the changes brought by the White Event. The creative teams on the titles were usually unstable, reaching the extremes of each one of Nightmask's first nine issues having a separate artist whilst it was rare for a book to have less than three writers at that stage. And the creators themselves were generally a mixture of veteran Marvel creators who seemed to be doing another lap to help out or new names getting started in the industry. There are some "before they were famous" names amongst the credits but for the most part these were not talents who set the world on fire.

There was also a major conflict that pitted the two aims of the New Universe against each other. One aim was to present the ordinary world outside the reader's window. The other was to show actions had consequences. The result was that the world presented both could and couldn't change away from the reality it was based on. Eventually a decision would have to be made as to which way to go but that would need clear direction to be set and consistent creative teams to implement it.

The result is that many of the titles staggered around, trying to reconcile their own conceptions with the wider demands of the overarching concept of the New Universe and frequently got waylaid by the changing creators. By far the best of the eight titles is D.P.7, a series that took the basic concept of the New Universe and ingrained it thoroughly, with the same writer and artist on not just the first nine issues but the entire run of the title (bar another artist drawing an annual).

However could the problem have been that fans just didn't want a new continuity? It seems unlikely as there have since been a number of quite successful new lines of comics including some that are rooted in a science fiction reality based universe rather than a traditional fantasy one. However those lines weren't launched from one of the big two comic companies and in particular didn't come from one that has always made so much of its single continuity without rushing to put whole chunks of its history into parallel universes. This created a problem - Marvel exclusive fans were not rushing to books that were distinctly not part of the regular Marvel universe whilst non-Marvel fans were not diving towards a Marvel line, thus leaving the New Universe stuck in the middle.

But also it's a very odd approach to celebrate what was apparently twenty-five years of one fictional universe by launching another. It's not exactly something that would obviously lure people in except those who wanted to be there at the start - but they had to feel something truly exciting was coming. And the buzz wasn't completely there.

The final area of explanation descends into messy industry and fan politics at the time which would culminate in Jim Shooter's dismissal in April 1987 following an incident when creators burnt him in effigy - with New Universe issues stuffed in the pockets. Did the fans share this view? And there was the whole protracted mess with Jack Kirby, with the King in lengthy talks with Marvel about the return of his artwork that had led to speculation Kirby would bring a legal case to claim all the copyrights. Shooter's comments about how Stan Lee had set out to write science fiction soap opera but got waylaid by the fantasy input of Kirby did not help. Jim Shooter talked about the "Shooterverse" as though he was a latter day Stan Lee. Did fans see the "Shooterverse" as Marvel/Shooter trying to create a universe that could keep the company going without any need for the legacy of that pesky Kirby? The large number of costume changes in this era has long fuelled similar speculation (much of which doesn't seem to understand how copyrights work - the case brought in recent years by Kirby's family was on something different that could not be filed in the mid 1980s). Did retailers underorder in protest and then fans boycott the line for such reasons?

It doesn't seem convincing. Although the comics industry was in the later stages of the growth of the direct market overall sales were still huge and the newstands still a significant player meaning that vocal fandom was a rather smaller influence than it may have felt - a typical loudest not largest group. And retailers have rarely risked economic suicide with deliberate underorders. If the line attracted low orders it was more likely down to risk aversion strategies on such a novel and untested line, and then a response to actual sales levels.

Overall the obvious explanation for why the line didn't take off is the simplest - it was ill-conceived. The big lofty ideas rarely made it all the way through to the finished titles and visions of huge talent piloting the books for a long voyage gave way to a mishmash of creators scrambling just to get them out. No conspiracy theory is needed to explain why 1986 did not prove to be as crucial for Marvel as 1961.

The other New Universe titles

Five other New Universe titles were launched in 1986 but they have yet to receive modern collected editions. But as it was a group launch it would be wrong to ignore them completely so here's a quick rundown of the books in order of first issues, looking at the initial premises and the creative teams who handled the first nine issues.


Spitfire and the Troubleshooters

Created by Eliot R. Brown and Jack Morelli who co-plot issue #1. Otherwise issues #1 to #9 are written by Gerry Conway and Cary Bates, and drawn by Herb Trimpe, Ron Wagner, Todd McFarlane, Vince Giarrano and Alan Kupperberg.

"Spitfire" is the nickname of lead character Jenny Swensen, a university lecturer who utilised her late father's robotic suit "M.A.X. 2" and travelled around with a bunch of her students, the "Troubleshooters". All six came from MIT and the students repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary technological abilities in deal with equipment and constructing exo-skeletons and armour. The earliest issues focused on Jenny's father's death and her determination to keep his legacy out of the hands of a corrupt businessman with links to the military.

This is a clear case of a New Universe series not starting from the premise that this was the ordinary world without all the fantastic technology of the regular Marvel universe. And the characters involved aren't so much ordinary as extraordinary. This series could easily have been set in the Marvel universe with only a small amount of fudging to reflect the fact that the advanced technology is more widespread there.


Nightmask

Created by Archie Goodwin. Issues #1 to #9 are written by Goodwin, Cary Bates, Roy & Dann Thomas and Sandy Plunkett, and drawn by Tony Salmons, Ernie Colon, Alex Saviuk, Ron Wagner, Arvell Jones, Javier Saltares, Michael Bair, Keith Giffen and Mark Bagley.

Keith Remsen and his sister Teddy are severely injured in a terrorist bombing. The White Event wakes Keith from his coma with the ability to enter other people's dreams whilst sleeping, with Teddy as his anchor to reality. In the dreamscape he adopts a distinctive costumed form to conceal his identity.

Although on the face of it this is a title that conforms to the "reality until the White Event" approach, Keith's father and another researcher have both been working on technology to project into dreams and this super technology underpins the origin. Otherwise this is an interesting way to create a fantasy environment out of reality, bending the rules somewhat.


Kickers, Inc.

Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Issues #1 to #9 are written by DeFalco, Terry Kavanagh and Dwight Jon Zimmerman, and drawn by Frenz, Howard Bender, Paul Ryan, Rod Whigham, Larry Alexander and Alan Kupperberg.

American Football player Jake Magniconte adopts the name "Mr. Magnificent" after receiving enhanced strength, reactions and endurance when he tries his brother's "Intensifier" machine to bombard the body with energy to slowly develop that way but the White Event impacts on Jake's body chemistry. Together with his wife Darlene and three other players from the Smashers they form "Kickers, Inc", a team of heroes for hire to operate off season and after they retire from the game.

I'll state up front that American Football is a sport I have absolutely no clue about. This is also an awkward hybrid of a concept that seems designed to be almost a parody of the superhero tropes combined with the requirements of the New Universe. The whole Intensifier concept is yet again the sort of fantastic technology the New Universe was supposed to start without. It would not have been impossible to rewrite the origin to supply all Mr. Magnificent's powers from the White Event but otherwise this is a somewhat traditional take.


Mark Hazzard: Merc

Created by Archie Goodwin. Issues #1 to #9 are written by Peter David and Doug Murray, and drawn by Gray Morrow, Alan Kupperberg, Mark Beachum, Vince Giarrano, Val Mayerik and Andy Kubert.

Mark Hazzard is a Vietnam veteran turned mercenary who takes contracts across the world but isn't always happy with his employers or their regular forces. At the same time he keeps disappointing all those around him, including his son and ex wife.

Although it actually predated The 'Nam's launch by one month, this is another series from much the same vein. The A-Team influence is obvious as is the more general trend of rehabilitating Vietnam vets in American culture that was taking place in the 1980s. One could make for a strong case that this series would benefit from being in its own self-contained world without either the Marvel universe heroes or the New Universe paranormals to complicate things. But though it's got the realism it lacks the big "what if" moment to transform the world from reality.


Justice

Created by Archie Goodwin. Issues #1 to #9 are written by Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Geof Isherwood and Gerry Conway, and drawn by Isherwood, Joe Staton, Tony Salmons and Keith Giffen.

A warrior arrives in this world from another with a traditional set of values and sets about dispensing justice using his alien powers to scan people's auras to determine their veracity then destroys the bad with an energy blast he calls his "sword", whilst protecting himself with another that he calls his "shield". It's established early on that he is a Knight Templar.

This is another case of a title not fitting into the basic premise at all and instead bringing humanoid aliens into it. It's also featuring a man in a costume, albeit with a trench coat over it (one of the earlier examples of trench coated heroes), that again goes against the original intentions. The low scale means it is easy to envisage this as having been set in a corner of the regular Marvel universe.


As should be clear from many of these descriptions a lot of the titles at the start just don't fit the criteria of a reality based universe without all the fantasy and super technology and with a single unexplained "White Event" as the catalyst for great changes. Both Nightmask and Kickers, Inc. use the White Event to empower their lead characters but the origins are based around super technology. Spitfire and the Troubleshooters doesn't even bother with the White Event and instead is based solely in super technology. Justice is about aliens and other dimensions. Only Mark Hazzard: Merc seems to fit a reality based universe completely and this is a series that is launched ignoring the White Event, powers and science fiction completely.

Note also the high turnover of writers and artists with every one of these five titles experiencing multiples of both on their first nine issues and in some cases the creators barely contribute. It's hard to escape the idea that these titles were almost thrown together in a hurry and individual issues were assigned to whoever happened to be around at a particular moment. That's not an encouraging sign in itself and it can only but wreak havoc with attempts to co-ordinate continuity.

In summary these concepts don't really stand out and it's unsurprising that four of these five titles were cancelled after a year whilst Justice was heavily retooled for the remainder of the New Universe's time. But was the line's problems solely down to the content? I'll look at this more in my concluding post.

D.P.7 Classic volume 1

D.P.7 Classic volume 1 reprints issues #1 to #9. Everything is written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Paul Ryan. That's an incredibly consistent pair of credits compared to everything else in the early days of the New Universe.

The concept behind the series is one of a group of ordinary people suddenly gaining powers for reasons they don't understand and looking for help and hope but instead finding fear and exploitation. At the outset of the series a number of so-called "paranormals" are brought together at a clinic in Wisconsin to come to terms with the changes in their bodies and hopefully find a cure. But it soon becomes clear that the Institute for Paranormal Research serves a much more sinister purpose and upon discovering their predicament a group of seven "paranormal" people flee the clinic. This volume covers their escape and attempts to live out a life on the road in a trailer, having to deal with their powers that have often made it difficult to fit into normal society, awkward relations with their families and pursuit by the clinic.

The Displaced Paranormals (the acronym is spelt out on each issue's title page) present a very human take on what is clearly a terrifying situation for each of them. This is one of the few New Universe titles that actually does conform to the idea of the ordinary world with one single injection of powers and it works all the better for it. There's a clear aim to offer something much more than an X-Men clone with variable ages. Instead this is a tale of the personal and small scale, with each of the seven characters bringing their own diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

With only nine issues here, some characters get more development than others at this stage. Charly Beck is one of the lesser developed. A dance student who has gained the power to change friction levels, making things either sticky or slippery, she embodies optimism about the future tempered by the mess around here. One such mess comes from Dennis Cuzinski who prefers the nickname "Scuzz". A cocky fifteen-year old school drop out he now finds his entire body emits a corrosive substance that can eat through anything. A loner alienated from his parents even before he gained his powers, he now finds himself ever more isolated and angry with the rest of the group, to the point of going it alone. The worst moment comes when a woman befriends him and they kiss - only for her mouth to end up burning from the acid. Scuzz's realisation of just how alone he is makes for a very chilling moment as he sets out to take revenge on a motorbike gang in the hope of committing suicide on an exploding bike only for a surge in his power to fizzle out.

Lenore Fenzl is perhaps the most mysterious of all the seven. A retired Latin teacher whose body has developed a strange grey covering, her skin now emits a strange ray that temporarily paralyses all those who see it. Consequently she has to cover her entire body from head to toe, including a mask and wig. The power seems to be growing in strength and exciting her, a development that both excites and horrifies her. Also experiencing a growth in her power levels is Stephanie Harrington, a young housewife and mother who finds herself now carrying a great deal of energy that strengthens her and can be transmitted to others by physical contact, revitalising and often healing them. But with this has come a strange glowing effect that becomes ever harder to hide. Her husband is horrified by these changes and bundles her off to the clinic; when she returns he calls the clinic. Meanwhile Stephanie's mother-in-law is looking after her three children - and poisoning their minds against their mother.

David Landers has a better relationship with the one member of his family whom we meet, his uncle who trades in Dave's two year old but much rusted by Scuzz trailer for a separate camper van, allowing the group more flexibility of travel. David is a worker in a cheese factory who suddenly finds his body and muscles growing at an incredible rate, turning him into a lumbering giant with initial huge pain from his muscles. A solid dependable everyman he becomes the groups' foundation, also supply the transport by which they get around. If there's a leader to the group it's Randy O'Brien, but he rapidly shows just how little authority he has with wildly varying priorities and ethics amongst the seven. A doctor in the late stages of training, his instinct is to help others, preserve life and avoid stealing but these values aren't always compatible with the situations the group finds themselves in. Contained within his body is a strange "anti-body", a dark, silent intangible figure that emerges from his body to travel at long distances, spy and impart information to others. It's a strange being that appears to have a life of its own and by the end of the volume its prolonged absence leaves Randy feeling notably weakened and empty.

Finally Jeff Walters is a fast food manager whose body has developed incredible speed but it's no fancy speedster power. Instead he finds himself literally unable to stay still for a second, with only Lenore's power working to slow him down, and his metabolism develops to the point where he has to consume an incredible amount every day just to survive, and thus often has to steal to get the food he needs. A wily prankster, his humour can grate at times yet often he's able to see a way through a close situation. He tries to maintain contact with his family and at one stage takes the rest of the group to his hometown in the hope that an exorcist can cure them.

The volume covers the groups' escape from the clinic and attempts to evade recapture, along with their travails as they try to survive on the road and handle relations with their families. The clinic sends multiple agents after them, including a few paranormals with abilities such as projecting psycho plasm or being able to reverse and object's motion, along with more generic bounty hunters. Elsewhere there are problems with various local pests such as a motorcycle gang or a bizarre killing club of youths that are slaughtering livestock and collecting organs. Attempts to reunite with family members don't always go well, with a lot of trouble stemming from Stephanie's husband. There are also tensions within the group themselves as they squabble over what to do but also growing bonds such as David's crush on Stephanie and Charly's on Randy. Repeatedly this is a world where actions have nasty consequences, especially when David or Jeff hit out and cause very brutal injuries. This is a title that never once forgets that it is about ordinary people in an ordinary world that have suddenly had extraordinariness thrust upon them.

This volume only contains the first nine issues and so the tale of the group's escape and evasion from the clinic is only partially told with more clearly to come. But what has been shown is a series with a strong concept and character base that offers lots of strong possibilities for development as well as showing a very different take on a tale of people suddenly gaining incredible powers. The stability of the creative team helps as the book manages to stick to a consistent course and not veer off all over the place. It's a series that works well in living up to the overall vision of the New Universe.

Psi-Force Classic volume 1

Psi-Force Classic volume 1 contains issues #1 to #9 of the title. Although created by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson, the series itself is written initially by Steve Perry then Danny Fingeroth with individual issues by David Michelinie and Fabian Nicieza. The art is mainly by Mark Texeira with some issues by Mike Vosburg and Bob Hall.

The basic premise is the series is one of psychic powers, with the White Event having enhanced and adapted the abilities of a number of people who already have Extra Sensory Perception. This use of ESP is another example of the supposed rules of the New Universe being broken from the outset, as is the handling of the reaction to having such powers. Although the main characters themselves at times struggle with the consequences, there's a rather all too easy acceptance that they have these powers when in reality many would likely freak out and the wider population panic. The only other significant sign of a more realistic approach is that injuries happen far more easily than in the regular superhero comics, but as the injuries are usually rapidly healed the effect is much the same.

At the start of the series Emmett Proudhawk, a CIA agent gone rogue with ESP powers of his own, assembles five teenagers who have recently found themselves with powers and brings them to San Francisco. In an early encounter with KGB agents "Hawk" is killed but the five teenagers find they are able to combine their powers to create a silent manifestation called "Psi-Hawk". Over the course of this volume they learn, sometimes the hard way, that the Psi-Hawk won't let them go their own way and they have to stay in hiding as runaways to protect both themselves and their families.

Hiding out in "Sanctuary", a home for runaways under the protection of Hawk's old friend Colby Shaw, the five struggle to adapt to their new lives with the problems of keeping their powers a secret, getting on with each other which is not always an easy task, dealing with other kids in Sanctuary, facing off against various government agencies and coming to terms with the Psi-Hawk. The concept is somewhat generic and it's easy to see elements of other teams of youths in this, particularly the X-Men. However setting this in a different fictional universe at least removes the obvious escape routes of turning to existing heroes for help, and instead the teenagers are left to fend for themselves.

The teenagers themselves are an unfortunate collection of stock archetypes that try to tick all the boxes. We have a moody loner, a pampered rich kid who finds themselves out of their comfort zone, a sporty kid rebelling against parental expectations, an annoying boy genius nerd and a foreigner. The four American teenagers cover multiple ethnicities, with Hawk's Native American heritage initially covering another, and the whole group looks as though it was assembled to order. This series may have debuted four years before the cartoon series Captain Planet and the Planeteers but it's hard to avoid noticing the similarities between the two as they both use the same structure.

The five themselves are a mixed bunch with several not terribly likeable. Wayne Tucker appears to be the eldest. A hot head from Chicago, he has telepathic powers to read minds and make people carry out actions. He resents being stuck with the others the most and is the first to try to break away on his own only to learn the Psi-Hawk exerts a control even when not formed. Wayne's powers are often used to get out of trouble and to wipe other's memories but he resents having to do this all the time. At one point he worries he's inadvertently used his powers to make another kid at Sanctuary commit suicide. His attempts at redemption are well meaning but forcing a businessman to not use loan sharks for money and instead "Get it from a bank!!", leading to a broad daylight hold-up. Kathy Ling is the archetypal "Valley girl", literally coming from the San Fernando valley near Los Angeles. A rich kid with telekinetic powers, she especially resents the way she's been dragged into all this and makes the most concerted effort to escape. Often she is resentful of the others' activities and just wants to go to the shops. Tyrone Jessup is initially the sporty kid, right down to the shirt he wears on the cover, hailing from Scarsdale, a small town outside New York. It soon becomes clear he's resentful of his parents pushing first him and then his brother down this route, believing it to be the only way black kids can get university scholarships. He has the power of astral projection, allowing him to become an intangible spirit form that can travel anywhere whilst his body remains in a vulnerable coma. Michael Crawley comes from Vermont and is both the youngest and geekiest of the five. He has the power to project destructive waves at objects with devastating results. Often the most optimistic of the five, his naive innocence is at times a crucial anchor. Finally Anastasia "Stasi" Inyushin is from the Soviet Union, having been extracted at great risk by Hawk. The back cover of the volume describes her power as "psychic empathy", presumably to make it fit the overarching theme, but it's really a miracle healing power that can heal just about any injury or illness. At times she wonders what she's let herself in for but perseveres.

The team has some limited support from Colby Shaw who runs Sanctuary, but her patience with their use of their powers and frequent fights with other residents. Otherwise their only ally is "Skipper", a colleague of Hawk's at the CIA who keeps tabs on them.

The group get caught in a succession of mundane problems and small time threats from criminals and thugs, plus the interest of various state agencies. In the first issue they are attacked by "Mindwolf", a KGB agent with his own destructive psychic powers who kills Hawk. It's clear over subsequent issues that at least one agency is keeping tabs on the kids and a mysterious figure has hidden another empowered kid, Thomas Boyd, from Hawk. Thomas is given the nickname "Stalker" and has the power to drain energy and life force from others. He thinks he's only capturing them, but rebels when he learns his master wants them dead and presumably him next. Much of the rest of the series is focused on the kids' attempts to grasp their powers and roles, find a way to escape from the power of the Psi-Hawk and cope with life around them. There are a few trips back to one hometown or another and a brief departure from San Francisco to Seattle but it's quickly reversed.

Overall this series shows an awkward hybrid of the arching vision of the New Universe and more conventional superhero norms. It may take advantage of the fact that this is a world without established heroes and that the powers have come in a single instance, but otherwise this book doesn't feel like it's set in an ordinary universe with a few science fiction but no fantasy elements. Instead it feels like a rehash of many of the themes of the X-Men, with the Psi-Hawk never really pulling things forward in a different way. Overall the series is rather pedestrian.

Star Brand Classic volume 1

Star Brand Classic volume 1 reprints issues #1 to #7 of the series. The series is written by Jim Shooter with one plot scripted by Roy Thomas. All but one issue is drawn by John Romita Jr, the exception is by Alex Saviuk.

This may seem a stable line-up compared to some New Universe titles but as the other two Classic volumes go up to issue #9 then in the interests of comparison it's worth noting that Star Brand's next two issues were both written by Cary Bates and one was drawn by Arvell Jones and the other by Keith Giffen.

Being written by the Editor-in-Chief and originator of the New Universe, it's natural to expect this series to be the flagship of the line and a template for how to do it right. But instead this is a series that fails to conform to the model of the ordinary universe until one single event unleashes changes upon everything. Instead we get a series that's more of an alternate take on the Green Lantern origin with a twist. Earth may be depicted as "the world outside your window" until a change happens but that's not true of the wider universe and we get a series based upon an encounter with aliens and all the consequences that flows from that. We also get a protagonist who is very different from the usual types encountered in Marvel comics. For all that was revolutionary about the Marvel Silver Age heroes, they ultimately conformed to the traditions of superhero ethics. They might have doubts and insecurities but ultimately they could always be relied on to do the right thing and a big fuss was made whenever they temporarily lapsed. Outside of the costume they were generally respectable people as well.

Star Brand is a very different take on it all. The lead character, Ken Connell (note that "Star Brand" is the object that gives him power, not a superhero code name) is not the most likeable of men. Most notably he's in two relationships at once, with one girlfriend kept ignorant of the other, and he's willing to cheat on them both, doing so with a woman found on a distant beach and even contemplating bedding a seventeen years old babysitter, though not going through with it. Otherwise he's an ordinary person whose career has seemingly stalled as a car mechanic in a large garage and whose hobbies include motorcycling.

The series does its best to present a more realistic approach to an everyday guy suddenly getting powers. He doesn't immediately rush out to stop crime and save lives. Indeed on one occasion he decides not to go and save four men from a collapsed building, in part because he can't get the time off work. When he does venture out he's concerned about concealing his identity and this makes him cautious. There's a moment when he tracks down terrorist students but instead of attacking them he simply breaks open their car boot full of weapons and then calls the police. In another he goes to save a boy trapped down a well but fear of recognition makes him take a long distance route of digging a tunnel and in the meantime the boy is rescued by Jenny Swanson in her robot suit from Spitfire and the Troubleshooters.

More generally this is a world where powers have consequences and special abilities don't come automatically. Ken may be able to lift a sofa when testing his strength, but it damages the roof in the process. When dealing with terrorists he finds a gun, but hasn't a clue how to use it effectively. Ken may be able to fly at great speed and even into space but he hasn't a clue how to know which way to go and has to resort to following coastlines, rivers and roads before taking maps with him. Disappearing from day to day activities gets him in trouble both at work and with one of his girlfriends. His flight gets noticed and his face recognised by terrorists, whilst it's only after the event that he realises he's left his fingerprints all over a gun and can be potentially traced. He contemplates revealing himself to the government but is then told he would be treated as a threat, experimented upon and disposed of. And the Star Brand itself comes in the form of a transferable tattoo but finding a place to hide it isn't easy.

The supporting cast are a mixed bunch. Most prominent are Ken's girlfriends. At one point he proposes to Barb and moves in with her and her two children, Laurie and Bobby. However they're put at danger by the alien who originally gave Ken the Star Brand, though the relationship ultimately crashes when Barb finds out about Debbie. Whereas Barb is slightly older than Ken and a working woman, Debbie seems younger and less with it. She is nicknamed "Duck" and often says "Quack" when the nickname is used. Ken uses her as both an emotional crutch and a confidante, yet she sticks by him no matter what and cannot bear the thought of their relationship stopping. The other cast members are less developed, such as Myron Feldman, a psychiatrist and Ken's friend who starts billing him for their time together, or various work colleagues such as his foreman, John Eberhardt.

This series doesn't go down the route of conventional bigger than life villains with the exception of the mysterious "Old Man" who gives Ken the Star Brand in the first place. His name is unpronounceable and we have only his word for his motives, which seem to be to recruit a young, malleable person to take part in a distant interstellar war. Otherwise the most recurrent foes are Libyan terrorists, reflecting the obsessions of a lot of 1980s fiction, with Ken even flying to Libya and destroying a military base. Beyond this Ken deals with minor annoyances, some with more success than others.

Although the writer and artist are generally consistent, there are signs of errors and laziness creeping in. Some names, particularly Kath, get used more than once whilst both the art and colouring can be a little inconsistent making it difficult to keep track of which minor character is which. Scenes at the end of issue #3 are meant to take place after dark bit are coloured as though it's broad daylight. The start of the same issue implies that it's the morning after issue #1, overlooking issue #2 in the meantime. It's hard to escape the idea that this series was almost thrown together to get it out without much care, which is shocking for the flagship book of such a major launch.

Overall Star Brand is very different type of series from a typical Marvel book, which means it meets at least one set of expectations. But it stops short of some of the hype, retaining the alien races that the New Universe was supposedly going to do without. It's also still feeling its way a lot of the time, trying to figure out just how much time should be spent on Ken's day to day life as opposed to his powers, and it doesn't always get the balance right. This is very much a concept in the experimental stage and it would have been better to have tried the idea out as a low key one-off series to refine it first, rather than such a high profile launch of a whole line. This is not a bad book in itself but it doesn't live up to the contemporary hype.

The New Universe

It began at 04:22 US Eastern Standard Time on July 22nd 1986.

(That's 09:22 GMT or 10:22 British Summer Time.)

In 1986 Marvel boldly announced its newest line of titles. They would take place in a continuity of their own, entitled the "New Universe". It would be a very different world from the regular Marvel universe. It would be a world full of ordinary people who reacted in ordinary ways - "the world outside your window" - with a single injection of powers known as the "White Event". It would be a universe designed from the start with clear direction. It was hyped as the next big thing in comics. For readers in 1986 it would be as amazing as the arrival of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Mighty Thor, the Invincible Iron Man, Dr Strange, the X-Men and Daredevil but this time it was all coming at once. Jim Shooter was proudly at the helm, driving the creation as though he was the Stan Lee of the age.

There was no end of hype. One of the best examples comes from a British reprint, as detailed by Stuart over at the Solar Pool:
If Target: 2006 is the best remembered of all the British [Transformers] stories, then Part 8 is by far and away the best remembered instalment.
...
As you'd expect with such a big important well remembered issue there could be nothing else for the Transformation [intro page] to talk about but... Marvel's New Universe. Yes, there's clearly been some arm twisting on behalf of Marvel US in order for their Big New Idea of 1986 to get a lot of attention.
It seemed set to be the biggest thing in comics in many readers' lifetimes. It was the chance to be there at the start and follow the amazement from the very first issues.

Only things didn't quite work out that way. The New Universe didn't catch fire and instead stumbled through a few years before being quietly abandoned. In subsequent years there's been the occasional revisit to one aspect or another but nothing ever as prominent as the original.

Three of the series - Star Brand, D.P.7 and Psi-Force - have each had their earliest issues collected in a single Classic tradepaperback. Today I'll be reviewing all three in one batch to see how the designed universe held up before a final post speculating as to where the line went wrong.

Alan Kupperberg 1953-2015

I missed the news that Alan Kupperberg passed away a few days, at far too young an age.

He did work for both Marvel and DC as well as other companies, variously writing, drawing and lettering on series I've covered here such as Marvel Two-in-One and Doctor Strange.

Cancer sucks.


Photo © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Omitted material: Marvel Two-in-One 99

Left out of Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4 is issue #99, which features a team-up with the licensed character Rom (previously seen in Power Man and Iron Fist #73 so I won't describe him again here). The issue is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Bob Hall.

This is a relatively straightforward action piece in which Rom crashes on the roof of the Baxter Building after an initial fight with a coven of Dire Wraith witches who have animated the armour of his deceased fellow Space Knight Firefall. Ben already knows Rom from adventures in the latter's own title and the two set off to deal with the Coven. During the fight Ben is bewitched by the Wraiths, forcing Rom to deploy his neutraliser weapon which dispatches all the Wraiths and also turns Ben human again. To Rom's surprise, Ben is upset at regaining his "humanity" - this is because Ben fears Alicia is drawn to the Thing not the man and is scared of losing her. Then the effects of the neutraliser wear off, restoring Ben to his Thing form.

This issue is somewhat slight due to telling two extended action sequences, one in flashback, but does show the problems with telling Rom stories because he comes with a powerful weapon that can permanently dispatch his foes and only his foes with ease. (And as the weapon came with the toy it can't be simply abandoned.) But it's also surprising to see yet another temporary cure for Ben and what I think is the first time he directly acknowledges the possibility that he really prefers being the Thing because of Alicia and implicitly this may be why no cure has ever lasted. It puts the final issue of the series into greater perspective and so is more key than it first seems, even though the main issue is nothing to write home about.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4 contains issues #78 to #98 & #100 and annuals #6 & #7. (Issue #99 is a team-up with the licensed character Rom and thus unavailable here.) The writing is mainly by Tom DeFalco with some by David Michelinie, David Anthony Kraft and Jan Strnad with the final issue by John Byrne. One annual is by Doug Moench, the other by DeFalco. Most of the art is by Ron Wilson bar a few issues by Alan Kupperberg.

As this is a team-up title, here's the usual list of the titled guest stars in each issue:

78. Wonder Man
Annual 6. American Eagle
79. Blue Diamond
80. Ghost Rider
81. Sub-Mariner
82. Captain America
83. Sasquatch
84. Alpha Flight
85. Spider-Woman
86. Sandman plus a back-up with the Impossible Man
87. Ant-Man
88. She-Hulk
89. The Human Torch
90. Spider-Man
91. [None billed but this issue supplies the volume's cover so have a guess]
92. Jocasta
93. Machine Man
94. Power Man and Iron Fist
95. The Living Mummy
Annual 7. [None billed]
96. [None billed]
97. Iron Man
98. [None billed]
100. Ben Grimm

Note the increasing number of issues not promoting a second star towards the end of the series; a sign of where things would eventually go. These stars are once again taken mostly from the more obscure side of the Marvel universe but with some exceptions and some attempts to build up their profiles.

This period of the title sees an initial drift back to the book's roots as a team-up title first and a Thing series second. There are a few times when the book gets used to either wrap up left-over matters from another series or else make significant changes to one of the guest stars. An example of the former comes in issues #92 & #93 which serve as a two-part tale that seems to be more about giving Machine Man one great final adventure following the cancellation of his own title (whose last issues were written by DeFalco) than about advancing the events in the Thing's life. It brings Machine Man into conflict with Ultron and introduces him to Jocasta for the first time, forming the basis on which DeFalco would later build the brilliant Machine Man limited series set in 2020 and often reprinted (including twice in the UK in the back-up pages in Transformers). In all this the Thing feels a bit like a spare part, at times relegated to a hypnotised state as a mindless minion of Ultron whilst the focus is upon Machine Man and some of his supporting cast such as mechanic "Gears" Garvin and psychologist Peter Spaulding, or upon Jocasta as she seeks to find a purpose in the world and make friends, both human and mechanical. It's a good tale but it's also one of the last examples of how team-up books could often get conscripted into sorting out things when a regular series bit the dust.

A rather odder development comes with the appearance of Spider-Woman in the final part of the volume's only real epic. A succession of issues see the Thing and Namor the Sub-Mariner then Captain America and Giant-Man (Bill Foster) battling Modok and Aim, with the Thing being infected by an experimental virus but a cure being obtained. Meanwhile Giant-Man is slowly dying of radiation poisoning but declines his one chance of a cure in favour of saving Ben's life. Ben in turn goes searching for the one expert on radiation who may be able to cure Bill - Walter Langkowski aka Sasquatch of Alpha Flight. The search leads to the Canadian wilderness and a battle with the spirit Ranark in which the rest of Alpha Flight get drawn in as the battle rages across much of Canada. But it's too late for Langkowski's treatment to have an effect and so Bill heads for Los Angeles to tie up his affairs with the Thing in tow, where they join with Spider-Woman in battling a new Atom Smasher who replaced the foe who gave Bill the poisoning in the first place. Salvation ultimately comes for Bill but at the cost of Spider-Woman's special immune system that makes her invulnerable to poisons, drugs and gases. It's a nice moment to see one hero sacrifice part of their powers to help another but it's very odd to remove a key power of a hero with their own title in what is, from their series's perspective, a throwaway guest appearance. Spider-Woman's series was still going at this time, having reached issue #42, and that should have been the place for this to take place in. But instead the issue has been treated as such a throwaway that it's not even included in Essential Spider-Woman volume 2. A development that does make more sense here is that of the Blue Diamond, as the Second World War hero, who has been little seen in the present day, gets a radical makeover at the hands of Shanga the Star-Dancer, and the two head off together.

Both the annuals see new characters introduced but one tale has more of an impact than the other. The first annual included here sees the debut of the American Eagle, a rather minor and somewhat stereotyped hero in an adventure that also sees Ka-Zar and Wyatt Wingfoot caught up in a battle with Klaw. The last annual is more spectacular, with no specific guest star billed but instead the Thing is one of many strong heroes kidnapped for an intergalactic boxing match with the Champion of the Universe, an Elder devoted to physical fights. Doc Samson and Namor the Sub-Mariner both drop out in training whilst Thor is disqualified and the Hulk is dismissed when he reverts to his mindless savage form. Then in succession Sasquatch, Colossus and Wonder Man fail leaving it down to the Thing to try to achieve what no other being has ever done - last more than two rounds in the ring with Champion. It's a tough battle with just about all the Marvel heroes watching. It leads to a fun follow-up in the regular series as Ben lies injured in hospital with a horror of a nurse who blocks most visitors whilst outside many old foes decide to take advantage of the situation and attack a vulnerable Thing yet the other heroes stand in their way and eventually both sides resort to uniting their forces. This may be one of the earliest times all the Marvel heroes got together to battle a veritable legion of villains and yet little is made of it as it's mostly played for laughs. But whilst the battle is raging there's a strong serious and moving moment inside the hospital as one old foe finds his way to Ben's room.

Between issues #86 & #96 the Sandman is taken forward light years. Having only just escaped from his last mess when he accidentally merged with Hydro-Man into a giant mud monster, the Sandman is now reassessing his life, starting with a drink in a bar where he declines to fight when the Thing turns up. Instead they just sit and talk, realising how they have much in common, and we learn a lot about the Sandman's life before the explosion that gave him his powers. It's a very sympathetic look at a villain who is given a second chance and his freedom by the Thing and doesn't disappoint - when he shows up at the hospital it's to deliver cigars and beer. The nurse might not approve but these issues have done much to make the Sandman a more sympathetic and human character and show there is a chance of redemption. The character has had quite a mixed handling over the years but it's here that he stepped up and it also reflects well on Ben in his handling of the situation.

There aren't too many other recurring villains or themes throughout the volume with most issues being a done-in-one conventional team-up. A few exceptions pop up, starting with a team-up with Wonder Man on the set of a rather dire television series called "Monster Man!", based on the Thing's exploits but sufficiently changed for legal reasons. The show is being manipulated by Xemnu the Titan, with the producer Ted Silverberg left searching for new material to rip off. He shows up again when he seeks revenge on the Thing with a dire monster movie but things get out of hand when the dinosaur special effects prove more realistic than anyone realised, forcing the Thing and Iron Man to clean up with Tony Stark using his business interests to mop up the aftermath. Otherwise it's a run of one-off tales including a confrontation with the Ghost Rider who has now become a separate personality from Johnny Blaze and is getting out of control. Easier to control is the Impossible Man who has now reproduce, forcing Ben to find ways to keep the whole Impossible Family entertained whilst he finds a new home planet for them.

There's a visit to a world in a micro universe where Ben has been taken to champion the ruler Pearla against Zorak of the Lizard People and only Ant-Man, now a role fulfilled by Scott Lang can save him. Back at normal size Ben gets hired to protect Los Angeles from a terrorist called Negator - and also fend off the advances and demands of the She-Hulk in her most flirtatious mood yet. David Anthony Kraft enjoys revisiting another aspect of She-Hulk's first series when he pits the Thing and the Torch against the cultist the Word and his daughter Ultima. There's also a battle with Sardeth the Sorcerer at a mediaeval recreation fair, with Spider-Man showing up to help and irritate the Thing. Elsewhere Ben gets caught up in some chaos as a rich eccentric inventor goes on the run with the Thing trying to help him but Power Man and Iron Fist have been hired to recover him for a company. Ben also finds himself visiting Egypt twice, including an encounter with the Living Mummy in which they battle the ancient High Priest Nephrus - who has transformed Alicia into his bride.

The last couple of issues in the volume veer away from the traditional approach of the series, with an issue that's more of a solo story in which Ben and Franklin Richards meet a video game inventor and get transported to a dimension where the elements of the video game come to life. The Tron influence is all too clear but fortunately the art doesn't try to accurately depict the world - there's nothing that dates faster than computing. The final issue sees Ben return to what he thought was an divergent timeline created by his attempts to cure himself of being the Thing at an earlier stage in his life but finds instead it's a pre-existing alternate timeline which has collapsed into a dystopia ruled by the Red Skull and it's down to Ben and his counter-part to save the day.

The final story addresses a minor subplot about whether or not Ben is better off being the Thing or not, with an earlier issue seeing Reed Richards privately speculate that the reason successive cures have always been unsuccessful is because Ben is secretly scared Alicia prefers him as the Thing and would reject him in human form. The visit to the alternate world has an effect and the last page show Ben deciding overall if he could pick between human and Thing form he'd pick the Thing. His relationship with Alicia remains much the same throughout the volume, with a brief period where she moves into the Baxter Building to be safer - only to find that with all the madness in there it's anything but safe.

This volume concludes the whole series as it was replaced after this by a solo Thing title, suggesting it was felt the team-up format had had its day. As this was the first of Marvel and DC's four main team-up titles to end it's arguable that it was killed too soon but it's certainly the case that much of this volume is more conventional team-up than the adventures of the Thing and an ever changing set of guest stars, insofar as the distinction was made. This volume maintains the general fun of two heroes working together that team-up titles always bring but it's not as strong or as coherent as some earlier periods. Still overall it offers lots of good individual adventures and makes for a strong collection.
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