Friday, 31 August 2012

Essential Nova volume 1

Essential Nova (the title given in the copyright information, and also on the spine) volume 1 contains The Man called Nova #1-25 plus Amazing Spider-Man #171, which contained half of a crossover with the series, and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3, which saw Nova guesting in the Thing’s team-up book. In addition it also contains Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Nova and the Sphinx.

All the Nova issues plus the Marvel Two-in-One Annual are written by Marv Wolfman, whilst the Amazing Spider-Man issue is by Len Wein. The regular series art is by John Buscema, Sal Buscema (who also does the Marvel Two-in-One Annual), Carmine Infantino and Bob McLeod, with the Amazing Spider-Man issue by Ross Andru. Writing wise that’s one of the most consistent credits I’ve seen for a title launched in this era.

The series is often described as an intentional homage to Spider-Man and an unintentional homage to (the Silver Age) Green Lantern but just how true are either of these? The Spider-Man homage seems clear and openly acknowledged, with the first issue’s cover carrying the banner “In the Marvelous tradition of Spider-Man!” We get the story of a high school student with an alliterative name who lives on Long Island who is bullied at school but unexpectedly gains special powers. There are some differences – Richard Rider lives in the city of Hempstead rather than the New York suburb of Queen’s, he lives with his parents, he has a younger brother, he’s a poor performer at school with both his brother and the school bully significantly outperforming him, but he has some well-established friendships. There’s no significant tragedy in Richard’s life that drives his superhero career and although his family experiences financial problems he never resorts to getting a job that would bring an additional aspect to the series. But there are sufficient elements from the Spider-Man stories to recognise the influence even though many a story of a high school pupil would have them. The absence of an equivalent to the great moral lesson Spider-Man learnt does stand out – the nearest we get are a couple of panels in the first issue where Nova reflects on how he could use his powers to get his own back, but then reflects that he was given them for a reason and must use them responsibly to help others. And throughout the series Richard/Nova faces some of the everyday personal problems Peter Parker/Spider-Man did in his early days, but with the exception of his poor grades and the prospect of repeating a year they don’t seem to be as significant.

The Green Lantern influence is more mixed than it initially seems. It’s true that we get the story of a dying alien member of some alien force choosing a human to be its successor. However the Nova Corps isn’t really presented as an intergalactic police force at this stage and it’s only in the last couple of issues that Xandar becomes relevant, though the series was cancelled before the storyline could get there. The impression given is that the previous Nova Prime was the last survivor of Xandar’s forces. Once the threat of Zorr has been defeated, Nova is pretty much a solo agent for the series’ run, with no alien higher authority or a legion of similarly powered warriors who occasionally help him or drag him off on missions. Nova doesn’t adhere to any grand code beyond the standard superhero ethic, and there’s no conflict of authority and morality. And looking at the basics, getting powers from an alien who dies soon after (thus leaving a superpowered human without a guiding force) is a formula that has been used elsewhere, such as Power Pack. It’s possible later stories added layers to the mythology that provided some more direct comparisons between Nova and Green Lantern, but on the evidence of the issues contained in this volume the influence is less than sometimes claimed.

Reading through this volume it’s surprising to see just how fast paced the stories are. Marvel comics from this era are generally only seventeen pages long which can be a limitation but Wolfman’s writing keeps things going at a fast pace. Nova is put through a variety of situations ranging from the comic, particularly the visit to Marvel Comics in issue #5, complete with appearance by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Stan Lee and several other Marvel staffers of the era, to the tragic such as the murder of his uncle in issue #12. The latter incident might seem like another homage to Spider-Man, especially as the wallcrawler has a crossover here, but it’s entirely a murder mystery rather than a deep character building moment.

Nova does get some character development but it’s a constant throughout these issues that he’s still learning things, a point made by Nick Fury when Nova assumes that the Yellow Claw has perished when his ship was destroyed by Fury knows better. Like many a hero, Nova/Richard experiences problems balancing the demands of heroing and his civilian life, with the inevitable consequences for the latter as he appears uncommitted and is frequently absent without convincing explanations. However unlike many he does take some steps towards reconciling the two. Throughout the first twenty issues a repeated theme is about whether or not he should tell his family, with the subplot of his younger brother Robert starting to investigate Richard’s disappearances, soon aided by his own creation “Sherly”, a robot designed to mimic Sherlock Holmes. However Richard opts to take the-then unusual step of revealing his identity to his family in issue #21 and this does a lot to resolve tensions as they find pride in him, though it opens up the question of whether or not his family will accept his continuing in the role. Unfortunately the series ends before this question is really resolved. Richard’s family are a mixture of the good and the bad. His father is a principal (not of Richard’s school though) who is eventually suspended in disagreements about discipline policy – it’s not explicitly spelled out but it seems to be the clash between teachers determined to maintain order through necessary methods against parents who oppose those methods and refuse to accept there are problems in the classroom. (Charles is also quite critical of Richard’s conduct at school both academic and pastoral.) The suspension pushes Charles to the edge as he faces financial problems that eventually put him under the influence of loan sharks called the Inner Circle, headed by the Corruptor, but Charles turns on them and gives evidence, even at risk to himself. Gloria is less well sketched out but is shown as a part-time working mother operating as a police dispatcher (which sometimes distracts Nova when his helmet picks up her radio messages) who is more openly sympathetic than her husband and keeps the family together. Unfortunately younger brother Robert fits an archetype that science fiction fans know all too well and cower from – the boy genius. An extremely intelligent fifteen year old, and a show-off to boot, Robert serves to enhance his brother’s inferiority complex and seemingly offer scientific solutions to problems, but after the early issues this latter aspect fades away in place of his curiosity as to what his elder brother is up to. It’s revealed later on that “Sherly” was in fact given artificial intelligence by Doctor Sun and it’s curious that Robert never stops to realise that as clever as he is, he’s not the next Reed Richards. Doctor Sun is also one of a number of characters to discover Nova’s identity, though most do so either through their powers or access to information. Nick Fury of SHIELD discovers it by tracking down the reports of the boy who exhibited strange energy powers around the same time in the same place that Nova first appeared, but takes steps to cover up the coincidence. It’s another step towards realism as in the real world it’s doubtful anyone could maintain a superhero secret identity, and certainly not a high school pupil.

It’s at high school that some of the clearest Spider-Man influences stand out, most obviously in the character of Mike Burley, “Big Man On Campus”, a school sports star and the regular bully of Richard. The Flash Thompson parallel simply leaps out and is reinforced by the presence of Donna-Lee Dover, Mike’s girlfriend who is more friendly towards Richard in a manner a bit reminiscent of Liz Allan. However Mike is not a pure Flash Thompson knock-off. In a major role reversal it’s Mike who regularly gets the top grades and Richard who just scrapes through academically, and this position adds to Mike’s arrogance. He’s inadvertently responsible for Richard gaining his powers by pushing him into the position where he was hit by the Nova Force. As the series progresses layers are added to Mike, suggesting that he has become the way he is due to massive family pressure to succeed, implying that he’s what Richard might have become had things gone differently. Mike is also shown as loyal to his family, to the point of being blackmailed into crime to save his brother’s life but because of this no charges are pressed. In another deviation from the early Spider-Man days, Richard has several established friendships at the school, including Bernie Dillon and Roger “Caps” Cooper, the latter of whom has to face the wrath of his uncle who has become Megaman and blames his nephew for it. There’s also Ginger Jaye, and as in many such real life cases the line between close female friend and girlfriend are blurred. She provides support to Richard at times, but even she gets badly treated by him at one stage, though later he apologises and is forgiven. In general the cast is devised well but with the limited page count they don’t get quite as much attention as they might otherwise have done.

Being a Marvel series it was inevitable that there’d be guest appearances by other heroes along the way. As well as the aforementioned Spider-Man, Nick Fury and SHIELD plus the to Marvel Two-in-One team-up with the Thing, there’s also an early appearance by Thor. Issue #15 appears to contain appearances by the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and a returning Spider-Man, but they turn out to be Life Model Decoys aka robots operated by SHIELD to test Nova. There are also two original heroes introduced – the Crimebuster, a crimefighter with no powers but skills and gadgets, and the Comet, a superhero retroactively placed in the 1950s who is restored from a drunken limbo. The Comet’s story of how his family were killed (by one of his foes seeking revenge) is a reminder of the dangers all superheroes place those around them under, but there is a happy ending to the story with the revelation that his son survived and is the Crimebuster. Both become allies of Nova at the end of the series.

The series demonstrates a high level of originality when it comes to villains. In the course of these twenty-five issues we get the first appearances of Zorr, Condor, Powerhouse, Diamondhead, the Corruptor, the Sphinx, Megaman, Firefly, Photon, Blackout and Doctor Sun. Additionally the Marvel Two-in-One annual introduces the Monitors. But once again I suspect there’s a dash to the search engines to find out just who some of these characters are. Blackout seems to have been used the most in the wider Marvel universe, but is very much a third or fourth tier villain. Otherwise I think the Sphinx has had the most impact but at times his very obscurity has been played on. The villains are a mixture of one-offs who serve a single story, most obviously Zorr and Photon, and those with recurring potential such as Condor, Diamondhead and the Sphinx. With the series being cut so short it’s hard to say which others would have survived for the long run and it’s perhaps inevitable that many have not been used much since which in a way helps the reprint volume as it keeps them fresh. There are also a handful of appearances by pre-existing Marvel villains but not too many. The Sandman is probably the most prominent, and the only one with a strong Spider-Man connection, whilst Tyrannus is from the Hulk’s series. But even more surprising is the choice of mastermind supervillain for the series’s longest storyline, the Yellow Claw. A Fu Manchu knock-off from a brief-lived mid-1950s Marvel/Atlas series, the Claw has been used a few times since, but there’s no shortage of Evil Oriental Masterminds in the Marvel universe, most notably the Mandarin and also, in this era, Fu Manchu (though Marvel no longer hold the rights for him). The Claw on this occasion is accompanied by his second-in-command, Karl von Horstbadden, an ex-Nazi who in keeping with the 1950s stereotypes worked for whoever was now the enemy of the United States, regardless of whether this was ideological consistencies. (In the same decade the Red Skull joined the Communists! Only later was it established that this was a different Red Skull.) Overall the villains provide a series of credible threats to Nova and help to build up his credentials as a fighter. The Sphinx is gradually established as Nova’s primary threat but his motivation is inconsistent. At first he wants to rule the world, but later he seeks to free himself of the curse of immortality and believes the relevant knowledge is held by either Nova himself or the Xandarians. It’s a revision that makes the character more credible but the change itself is somewhat abrupt, even if we accept the claim that he has spent a year trapped on a moon between appearances.

Unfortunately, the original series ends somewhat abruptly at issue #25 with Nova, the Sphinx, Comet, Crimebuster, Diamondback, Doctor Sun and Powerhouse all aboard the Xandarian spaceship heading for Xandar as part of the Sphinx’s plans. The series stopped at that point but the storyline continued for an extended run in the Fantastic Four. Sadly even six years after Essential Nova was first published, Essential Fantastic Four has yet to reach that storyline. Worse still the final fate of Nova for the 1980s appeared in ROM, a title character Marvel no longer holds the rights for (and by some accounts the current rights holder is unclear and/or unaware of it). Given the length of the Fantastic Four storyline and the fact Nova himself only appears in a few issues, it’s perhaps understandable that it wasn’t included here, but it does mean the storyline ends somewhat anti-climactically with the two Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe serving as a summary of what happens next. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future Essential Fantastic Four will have carried the Xandarian storyline and later editions of Essential Nova can direct readers there. As for ROM it’s less likely but never say never...

Despite the abrupt ending, this is a good volume in general. However I am surprised that at the time Marvel genuinely believed they had another Spider-Man on their hands and promoted Nova as such. The series doesn’t quite reach those levels but it is of good quality and deserved to last longer as a monthly, instead of being dropped to bimonthly and then cancelled when a major storyline was beginning. This may not have been entirely down to contemporary perceptions of quality as the comics industry was facing wider problems in the late 1970s with Nova’s switch to bimonthly and then cancellation happening approximately equidistance from the “DC Implosion” when DC cancelled a large chunk of their line in one day due to weak sales figures, not helped by atrocious blizzards that almost literally dampened sales. Nova deserved a better chance than it got. It holds up quite well to this day.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 3

Essential Daredevil volume 3 contains issues #49-74 and Iron Man #35-36, which crossed over with the series. The first few issues are written by Stan Lee who gives way to Roy Thomas for most of the volume before the last few issues and the Iron Man crossover are by Gerry Conway, with Allyn Brodsky contributing the crossover’s plot, with Gary Friedrich contributing a couple of fill-in issue en route. Most of the art is by Gene Colan, with “Barry Smith” (better known as Barry Windsor-Smith – was he reluctant to use the full double-barrelled name at the start of his career?) popping up for a few issues here and there whilst the Iron Man issues are drawn by Don Heck.

There are a number of new villains introduced in these issues, including Starr Saxon and his Plastoid, Death’s Head, the Stunt-Master, Crime-Wave, the Torpedo, Brother Brimstone, Kragg, the Thunderbolts (a gang; nothing to do with the later team of villains turned heroes), Tribune, Quothar and Smasher. There’s a few villains from other series including Nighthawk (before he reformed) and, in the Iron Man crossover, the Spymaster and the Zodiac cartel. Once again I wouldn’t be surprised if these names have some of you are rushing to the search engines. Very few of these villains have made any significant long-term impact and in several cases they are killed off (and usually it appears to be an intentional killing rather than an ambiguous fate that would allow them to return). Saxon was rapidly built up as a new contender for the still vacant post of Daredevil’s archenemy, even having discovered Daredevil’s secret identity. But perhaps it was too risky to allow a foe to have such information and so he’s rapidly disposed of. Worse still, he takes Mr. Fear down with him, with the revelation that the original Mr. Fear has been killed (off-panel!) and Saxon has taken on his costumed identity. The other foes similarly make a limited impact, with Crime-Wave being another take on the masked criminal who plans to become the crimelord of New York but who is unmasked as an unexpected familiar person – in this case Hollis, an assistant District Attorney. Perhaps as a sign of how tired the archetype is, the character doesn’t appear to have been seen since. One villain who does get some development is the Stunt-Master who reforms and later works with Daredevil as well as becoming part of the general Hollywood scene around Karen in her new career.

There are finally some major developments involving Karen that improve her as a character but also have the effect of removing her from the series. At one stage she returns to her family home where she discovers what has happened to her father who has become the villainous Death’s Head. In the resulting battle with Daredevil, Death’s Head gives his life to save his daughter. Then after the funeral we get what must have been a shock in its day as the hero reveals his identity to his girlfriend. Whilst Matt had often contemplated doing this before, there had always been one thing or another that came in the way, making it the wrong moment. But now it finally happens. I am not sure how many superheroes had revealed their identities up to this point but I can’t think of any major ones (the DC Earth 2 characters, who were usually married to their main romance interests, don’t really count as they were intended to be a generation older). This makes this development the more daring, though it overlooks that Karen had virtually worked out the identity already. Unfortunately now that she knows her boyfriend is, her reaction is all too human. At first she knows how she feels about Matt but is unsure about making a life with a man who risks his life every night and may not come home. It’s true that there are many police officers’ spouses who face this very night, but usually they knew what they were getting into. Karen fell for someone she thought was a vulnerable lawyer, not a dynamic superhero. At first Matt tries to reassure her that he is retiring as Daredevil but then in a fight between ol’ Hornhead and the Stun-Master, Daredevil and Karen both realise how much superheroing means to him. As a result she leaves and moves to Los Angeles, taking up a new profession. Acting is a job that allows her a greater degree of independence from Matt than secretarial work, allowing her to finally be defined by something other than the men around her. However Hollywood is a long way away from New York and doesn’t really offer much scope for developing their relationship. We get a few stories set out west as Matt goes searching for Karen and eventually tracks her down, but eventually she decides she enjoys her new career as she goes from strength to strength, and when Matt asks her to make a choice between the two, he takes her response as meaning she’s chosen the job over him and then returns to New York.

We get a few other developments with the supporting cast. At the end of the previous volume it seemed as though Matt and Foggy had professionally split for good, but they soon realise that there was more anger than cause and Matt is soon working as an assistant to the District Attorney. There’s also a brief addition to the supporting cast in the form of Willie Lincoln, who although introduced in issue #47 in volume 2, has now been upgraded from a one-off character to an occasional supporting cast member. A veteran blinded in Vietnam, he found his sense of purpose again thanks to Matt Murdock and now reappears a few times, giving help and bringing tips on new crimes. It’s a pity greater use isn’t made of him. Otherwise there are no other real developments with the supporting cast. Hollis, the alter ego of Crime-Wave, is little more than a named background figure.

One character who could have become a regular feature is Iron Man. At one stage in late 1971, just after the end of the issues in this volume, there were plans to merge the poor selling Daredevil with the equally poor selling Iron Man to form one of the “buddy books” that were an especial feature of the Bronze Age of comics. Iron Man and Daredevil may seem an odd combination but then the same could be said of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, or the Atom and Hawkman, or Power Man and Iron Fist before each of those combinations was unleashed upon the newstands. But if the crossover included here is anything to go by it’s a relief that this plan never came to pass (instead both books switched to bimonthly for a while). I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Iron Man of this era to know if the story is a good fit for that series, but for Daredevil it sticks out like a sore thumb and issue #73 could easily be ignored in reprint runs without anyone noticing, though such an approach is entirely contrary to the Essential philosophy. We get a tale of a struggle between Iron Man and SHIELD with some members of the Zodiac cartel, fighting over an alien artefact with a brief trip to the alien world. Throughout all of this Daredevil wanders through and whilst he doesn’t openly acknowledge it, he really is completely out of his depth. The story was the second issue of Gerry Conway’s run on Daredevil and the start of a brief run on Iron Man so at least it benefits from a single writer being in control and thus the separate parts flow smoothly, but it really is one of the most forgettable stories in the volume.

Otherwise the volume contains a predominantly so-so run. A strong theme throughout this volume is identity, with a larger number of mystery villains than usual, though the mysteries only last for a single storyline. The quality of the mysteries is a little better than before, with the Brother Brimstone tale providing several suspects upfront and making efforts to provide a red herring. Read from today’s perspective it may still seem a little obvious who the murderer is, but compared to earlier mysteries in Daredevil that were all too obvious, it’s a definite improvement. But there’s a even bigger mystery explored in these issues as Matt/Daredevil grapples with the question of his own identity – which is the true personality and which is the mask? It’s one of a number of areas where for better or for worse the series was one of the earliest to do something that would become commonplace later on, another being the girlfriend discovering the hero’s identity discussed above. This is one of the advantages of being a title regarded as a second stringer as it allowed writers and artists to experiment with variations from the standard norm for superhero titles without risking “ruining” the biggest name properties where such moves could have taken the series into a dead end. The identity question is partially triggered by Starr Saxon’s discovery of Daredevil’s alter ego, but it’s clear that the issue has been bubbling under the surface for much longer. This leads to a series of moves by Daredevil that see to serve both the short and the long term purposes, such as when he decides to fake Matt Murdock’s death in a plane crash to remove the threat of Saxon’s blackmail but also to remove a weakness. He plans to start a new life with Karen under a different identity but abandons the latter part of the plan and instead arranges for his bluff to be publicised as part of a plan to trap Mr. Fear. But even after this Daredevil displays more savvy about his identity than the average superhero, particularly when he follows Karen to Los Angeles. Predicting that he might need to go into action on the West Coast and instead of ignoring the problem of the hero and the alter ego being in the same place out of town at the same time, he instead tackles it head on. Matt pretends to have instead gone for a restful vacation in Florida, whilst he uses false names in Los Angeles and thus minimises the likelihood of anyone making the connection. Compared to the way that other heroes like Spider-Man routinely show up in the same cities that Peter Parker is visiting without anyone noticing it’s a major step forward to a more realistic approach.

(Speaking of Spider-Man he has a brief cameo in issue #54 and does think to himself that he once believed Daredevil was Matt Murdock, but dismisses the theory now that Murdock is dead. This is the nearest to an explicit acknowledgement that Spider-Man wrote the infamous letter way back in issue #24, but otherwise that plot strand is now totally forgotten.)

The Starr Saxon story is the highlight of the volume, putting Daredevil through a real gauntlet as he faces a succession of menaces sent by his foe, whilst also trying to work out how to restore his secret identity. Unfortunately the resolution sees Saxon die rather than something more imaginative, but giving such a villain amnesia had already been done to death over in Spider-Man. The storyline also sees a retelling of the very first issue. This could have been the opportunity to tweak and tidy up the origin, add in a few details to explain stuff overlooked in the original story and make the whole thing flow better. However instead we get almost a direct translation of the original story, right down to the awkward narrative flow with the flashbacks. I can’t spot anything that’s been particularly added or changed apart from new dialogue that at least cuts down the sexism when Karen is introduced. It’s curious that this approach was taken – was it perhaps a fill-in issue to cover a late script? One aspect that may surprise from a modern perspective is that at this point there’s no attempt whatsoever to condense the timeline. Instead Daredevil is presented as having been active for five years, the same amount of time since the series began, and the years for earlier events in his life are the same as in his first issue. It would be a few years yet before writers started the move towards “Marvel time” whereby events are squashed into a set number of years and references to the real world are reduced.

In general the issues in this volume don’t really set the world on fire but instead keep things ticking over. There’s some good individual moments, particularly in when a bomb explodes near the Vice President who was being protested by young idealists. Foggy and Matt find themselves having to prosecute the young protestors despite believing and knowing respectively that the protestors are innocent (and whilst the story acknowledges the dilemma the lawyers find themselves in, it doesn’t address at all just how a masked vigilante can give testimony in court that will hold up). More generally there are some political themes such as the Tribune, an extreme patriot angry at the changes that were sweeping American society and the perceived failure of the existing establishment to stand up to them, or a look at tensions amongst the black community that see some drawn into crime and others who go off to fight in Vietnam attacked as “Uncle Tom”s by their own. When exploring such themes the book usually takes a left-leaning approach, doubtlessly reflecting the leanings of its authors, but I have no problem with doing this providing a good actual story is told and it doesn’t descend into oversimplistic right and wrong. These stories came out contemporary to the early stages of the famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams and show the series willing to take yet more steps where other Marvel comics had not yet gone. But fortunately the series did not completely decamp into this area as it would likely have become very much a pale imitation of the O’Neil/Adams work.

Overall the volume is mixed but does have its ups such as the developments in Matt and Karen’s relationship plus the exploration of Daredevil/Matt’s identity crisis and his attempts to resolve it. But beyond that the stories and situations are largely treading water and not yet finding a spark to really set the series on fire. It’s an okay volume but the best Daredevil is yet to come.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 2

Essential Daredevil volume 2 contains issues #26-48, Special #1 (basically the Annual by another name) and Fantastic Four #73, which crossed over to complete a storyline. In stark contrast to the first volume, the writing and art is remarkably stable here, with every single Daredevil issue by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, whilst the Fantastic Four issue is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

After the turbulence of the art in the first volume, it’s a revelation to have a volume in which everything but a crossover issue is drawn by the same artist. It’s even more surprising as it includes the “Special” which has 55 pages of all-new material coming out alongside the regular book. It’s a far cry from the eras where fill-in artists pop up constantly and annuals are often by different artists. Colan’s style has a strong charm to it, and he’s able to handle the quite diverse situations the series often takes the hero into. Unfortunately I find the writing more inconsistent with a number of issues that just don’t feel like natural Daredevil adventures but instead take him into situations and pit him against foes that are well outside the norm for the series. The civilian side of his life is also poorly developed for much of the run.

One of the silliest subplots involves Matt’s attempts to keep his identity secure following an accusation in a letter from Spider-Man at the end of the last volume. (Curiously despite Spider-Man popping up twice during this volume, no mention is made of his letter at all. Could it have conceivably have been sent by someone else? It’s a loose plot thread that could have had something made of it in the right hands.) Matt’s solution to the problem was to claim Daredevil was actually a twin brother of his, and then to reinforce his lie he had to invent his hip and happening brother “Mike”. His “Mike” persona is at best irritating, at worst fairly ludicrous. Even with the conventions about disguises that operate in superhero comics, it’s almost impossible to accept that Karen and Foggy are taken in, especially as the two brothers are never seen together. (At one point “Mike” rings up Matt and speaks to a tape recorder, with Foggy and Karen listening, but it’s hard to see this trick being enough.) To add to the complications Karen is attracted to “Mike”, adding yet further angles to the office triangle, whilst Matt finds himself enjoying the “Mike” persona so much that he almost has an identity crisis. The ludicrous situation is eventually resolved in issue #41 when in battle with the Exterminator Daredevil uses an explosion to fake his death and claims that Mike is gone and there is now a new Daredevil in town. I have lost track of the number of heroes who have pulled off this stunt over the years but this may have been one of the first times it happened. In theory it means Daredevil now has to pose as someone else in the costume but in practice in subsequent issues he generally acts much the same (apart from when driven temporarily mad by radium), though his only old foe in subsequent issues in this volume is Stilt Man. It’s worth watching in subsequent volumes to see how much lip service is paid to this one.

Unfortunately the “Mike” subplot takes up so many issues that there are few other developments amongst the supporting cast and so the whole thing feels stagnant. This does change a bit towards the end of the volume as we get some changes and developments amongst the supporting cast. Deborah Harris from the earlier Organization/Reform Party story returns as a reformed character and is soon engaged to Foggy, thus removing one of the obstacles to Matt and Karen finally getting together. However Matt is still reluctant and Karen assumes it’s because of his blindness so she leaves for a while. When she returns we finally get a kiss between them, after “just” forty-eight issues, but soon Matt puts his foot in it once more when in trying to protect Foggy by keeping him out of the office when an attack is due, he comes across as callous and uncaring, seemingly refusing to help his partner’s election bid for District Attorney. The volume ends with Foggy elected but he and Matt seem to have broken their partnership for good. As a result, the slate is potentially wiped clean for a new direction and new supporting cast members in future issues.

With such limited or dead-ended developments in Matt’s civilian life, much of the excitement comes from the action and situations he finds himself in. Many of the issues see him in particularly complicated situations where his sense powers can’t help him. Such situations range from one storyline were he temporarily loses his extra senses and has to find an antidote whilst Mr. Hyde and the Cobra are preparing to execute him, to the Jester framing him for murder (actually a fake-out, the “victim” was the Jester’s alter ego) resulting in the police swarming all over the city and around both Matt’s home and office, making it difficult for Daredevil to move about the city and find a way to clear his name with only his costume to hand. There’s a level of excitement to many of the dilemmas Daredevil faces in spite of the quality of the villains used.

This volume sees some expansion of Daredevil’s Rogues’ Galley, with the new villains introduced in including a bunch of aliens (they’re not named here but were later called the Queega in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe), the Boss, the Exterminator, the Jester and Biggie Benson. It’s not the most impressive set of additions with only the Jester making a long-term impact. From other series we get for the first time the Cobra and Mr. Hyde (from Thor), the Beetle (from the Human Torch in Strange Tales), the Trapster (ditto), Doctor Doom (by now from just about everywhere) and Richard Raleigh (from Spectacular Spider-Man magazine – indeed his brief tie-in appearance here actually creates more continuity problems than the actual magazine itself!). Although some of these foes would plague Daredevil repeatedly, overall this isn’t a particularly great set of additions, with some being quite a way away from the series’ norms.

It seems it was almost obligatory for every early Silver Age Marvel hero to encounter at least one race of aliens. Daredevil’s encounter is actually quite late by the standards of his contemporaries but the story does at least try to fit into his world, with Matt Murdock invited to give a law lecture on the potential rights of aliens, and the aliens who show up using a weapon that blinds people. They’re also not trying to actually conquer the planet, just steal its resources. In itself, it’s a harmless tale but it’s another case of taking Daredevil beyond his comfort zone. Another such venture sees Doctor Doom swapping bodies with Daredevil in the hope that the latter’s friendship with the Fantastic Four will allow him to penetrate their defences. Quite how Doom fails to realise that Daredevil’s body is blind is unclear – he assumes the eyes are covered to help other powers work but it’s strange he doesn’t investigate further. His plans also fails because Daredevil is able to use Doom’s body to first order the Latverian embassy staff to release him and then to order declarations of war against all of Latveria’s neighbours, forcing Doom to abandon his plans and switch bodies again. However Doom adapts his plan by convincing the Fantastic Four that Daredevil is really Doom in disguise (helped by Daredevil having earlier sent the same warning), leading to a fight in which Spider-Man and Thor also play a part. Whilst told well, it feels a bit too far out of the standard for Daredevil. The same is true of the Exterminator’s appearance with his T-Guns that temporally displace people. Daredevil’s solution for getting himself back in temporal sync by getting dragged by a speeding car is enough to make one wonder which series the basic plots were developed for.

There are a number of appearances by established foes as well, with the first couple of issues developing the Masked Marauder further. He is finally given an identity – Frank Farnum, the manager of the building containing the law practice. Farnum had made only very minor appearances beforehand such that he never really qualified as a member of the supporting cast but the caption on his revelation does comment that he was about the only suspect offered. But Farnum is a surprisingly downbeat and pedestrian alter-ego for a master criminal being built up as Daredevil’s archenemy, and I suspect this identity was rapidly seen as a mistake, for in the very next issue the Masked Marauder’s latest plan results in his own death, when he falls from a helicopter into his own destructive forcefield. Thus, one of the best of the early villains is all too rapidly lost from the series and his role as a recurring master schemer who uses other villains for more mundane tasks isn’t really filled during this run. This leads to a surprising villain stepping into a role traditionally reserved for an archenemy.

The first “Special” (I don’t know why it’s called that and not an Annual; subsequent annuals follow its numbering) features another regular feature of Silver Age Marvel – a teaming up of previously solo villains. After the Masters of Evil, the Sinister Six and the Frightful Four we now get the Emissaries of Evil. It is led by Electro and consists of the Gladiator, Stilt Man, the Matador and Leap Frog. It really reinforces the view that Daredevil’s Rogues’ Gallery is nothing to write home about. Such teams are traditionally led by an archenemy but Electro is a temporary import from Spider-Man’s book. It just reinforces how the Masked Marauder was mishandled. As for the rest of the team, the Gladiator is credible but the other three are so easy to mock. It just emphasises the need for some more durable serious foes. The “Special” follows the pattern of Spider-Man’s encounter with the Sinister Six somewhat with solo fights but also shows a willingness amongst the villains to pool their resources, not that it does them much good. It has a few other features such as an attempt to explain the Mike Murdock situation to new readers, a series of one page profiles of Daredevil, his supporting cast and key villains, and finally a three page feature showing how Stan Lee and Gene Colan create the series. This last piece is surprisingly open about how the “Marvel Method” works, and also shows Lee in a surprisingly poor light. Maybe he was willing to mock himself even then. It’s a hilarious piece and one of the best of these sort of behind the scenes views that I’ve read from the era.

Issues #44-47 see a brief attempt to change the series logo. However the new version is appalling, splitting Daredevil’s name across two lines and hyphenating it (I wonder if this is the origin of the capitalisation “DareDevil” which I recall seeing in a few places), and a modification made for issue #47 does nothing to improve it. Fortunately the original logo is restored with issue #48. (The two-line version was used but once again on the third “Special”, an all-reprint issue further down the line.)

This volume is one of those where the individual parts are greater than the whole. There are no real stinkers amongst the stories, just some that seem to stretch too far from the basic concept of the urban crime-fighting hero, but overall the run is still constrained by a very narrow supporting cast and rather limited development. This limited cast probably also contributes to the poor choice of alter ego for the Masked Marauder, which in turn leads to the character being written off. The last few issues do start to address the problems of development but they also seemingly remove most of the supporting cast before clear replacements can be brought in. Without strong ongoing development and with a Rogues’ Gallery composed for the most part of weak and/or silly villains, the main thing sustaining the series is the rapid succession of strong exciting adventures with unusual situations. But that’s not the firmest of bases to sustain a series on. Volume 2 is good in itself but doesn’t bode well for the future.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

New releases: Essential Warlock volume 1

Just a quick update post to note that this week sees the release of Essential Warlock volume 1 (at least via Diamond distribution to comic shops; bookshops appear to be two weeks behind on trade paperbacks). Amongst other issues reprinted it includes Spider-Man’s guest appearance in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2, which has also been reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2, and also from the regular Spider-Man issues Marvel Team-Up #55 which was reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 3.

Since both the Spider-Man appearances have already been covered in previous posts, I won’t be looking at them again (though I’ll add the cover where appropriate). Warlock is one of the more unusual series of its era (the mid 1970s) and is very, very different from the contemporary Spider-Man stories, offering a highly philosophical cosmic adventure. It appeals to some but not others. I’m most definitely amongst the some.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 1

Essential Daredevil volume 1 contains the first twenty-five issues from the series. Almost all issues are written by Stan Lee, bar one where Denny O’Neil scripts a Lee plot and another by Wallace Wood. The art was very unstable. The first issue is by Bill Everett, but due to time constraints he had assistance from Steve Ditko and the cover, recycled as a splash page, is by Jack Kirby. Then we get a succession of Joe Orlando, Wallace Wood, Bob Powell, Jack Kirby and John Romita, before issue #20 sees the arrival of Gene Colan who is initially announced as filling in for Romita but actually wound up holding the pencil for all but about five of the next eighty-one issues.

(The creation of Daredevil is also a little unclear though it hasn’t received the same level of attention as Spider-Man. Again there's scope for disagreement over what constitutes “creating” – the initial idea by Stan Lee or the fleshed out concept worked up in collaboration with Bill Everett - plus Jack Kirby contributed to the development but it’s unclear just how far, although Everett recalled Kirby came up with the billy club. I can’t recall if Daredevil was on the list of characters Kirby’s heirs unsuccessfully tried to claim the copyright on in recent years but even if he was the case didn’t get far enough to determine “creation”. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a claim of an alternative source for the idea.)

The début issue is somewhat mixed, probably because of the limited link between the two strands of Matt Murdock gaining his enhanced senses and his father’s murder for failing to take a dive in a fixed wrestling match. This isn’t so much a tale of a lesson in responsibility or vengeance driving an ordinary person to do extraordinary things. Rather it’s a tale of a man’s murder that coincides with the son happening to have gained special abilities independently that he puts to use in seeking justice for his father. However, unlike Spider-Man’s origin, there isn’t a direct reason given at this point for why Daredevil continues to fight crime even after he’s dealt with the killers. (Although much later on in issue #25 Matt Murdock does comment to himself “I never realized Daredevil was so much a part of me! It’s like DD is my real identity – and I’m just play-acting as Matt Murdock!” It’s one of the earliest comics I can think of that even touches on the question of which identity is the “real” person and which is just a front.) Also unaddressed in the first issue and indeed through the volume is the seeming contradiction of a lawyer dedicated to the system of law and justice having a dual identity as a vigilante working outside the law – and on this occasion trying obtain a confession under duress. Some elements of the origin do still hold up quite well and have barely dated – match fixing remains an issue in wrestling to this day, whilst many children are under pressure to study hard from parents who want them to succeed. And even the chemical accident holds up quite well – the transportation of hazardous chemicals is often less than ideal and spillages can and do occur, permanently disabling people. Okay the idea of a radioactive chemical giving a person enhanced senses is a piece of comic book science, but it’s one simple leap of absurdity that we accept. In fact about the only point where the basic origin story now seems dated is the lack of any ambulance chasing injury lawyers.

Once past the first issue the series goes through a bit of a turbulent period before it really gets a clear idea of where its going. The situation is not helped by the early art being a bit of a mess and it’s not until John Romita arrives, doing finishes over Kirby’s layouts on issues #12 & #13 before doing full pencils from #14 onwards, that things start to settle. However no sooner had Romita settled in than he was whisked away over to the Amazing Spider-Man. Both he and Colan thought they were just doing fill-in assignments but each wound up staying on their respective books for quite some time. Perhaps most symbolic of all the changing artists are the alterations to Daredevil’s costume. There are a few minor changes made throughout the first six issues, most notably the chest initially sporting a “D” then a “DD”, or the brief use of a hood to carry his civilian clothes or the changing number of straps attaching the billy club holder to his leg. Then from issue #7 onwards Daredevil sports the all red outfit he’s best known for. It’s rare for a new costume to last but Daredevil pulls it off (to the point that there was a period when Marvel reprints of early Daredevil appearances were colour-“corrected” to change his yellow & black costume to the all-red version). It’s also astonishing that the new costume is introduced in a single panel that takes up about one twelfth of a page with a brief thought bubble to tell us Daredevil has worked on making it more comfortable and distinctive. In later years, entire issues would have been given over to such a change, but here the narrative flows relentlessly on.

Another area of inconsistency are Daredevil’s abilities and gadgets. The origin establishes that other than his senses he doesn’t actually have any super powers and has to rely entirely on his training and skills. Yet there’s nothing to indicate he has anything other than self-training but despite this his fighting skills are phenomenal. His billy club also gets all manner of gadgets installed in it, ranging from a very practical cable launcher to a mini-cassette recorder to a bizarre super powerful microphone with which he can use his enhanced hearing to listen to the entire city. It’s a strange addition that is only rarely used. Daredevil’s actual sense powers are also somewhat variable, serving the needs of the story at hand, with his power of hearing at times seeming almost overwhelming whereas at other times it seems little more than a normal blind person who has standard hearing but pays more attention to it than a sighted person. There are also times when it seems the radar sense might as well be sight as Daredevil is seemingly able to do just about everything a sighted person can without restraint. It reaches its silliest moment when he’s able to pilot a fighter plane by the vibrations on the read-outs and his radar sense.

The supporting cast is limited to just Matt’s law partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page. There are strong bonds between all three, enhanced by a love triangle with Matt unable to realise Karen’s feelings for him and scared to make a move because of his blindness. In several ways the Karen-Matt situation is a mirror of the Donald Blake-Jane Foster situation over in Thor, albeit with an explicit rival thrown in to reinforce the tensions. Beyond romantic entanglements this set up does somewhat limit Matt’s world, with no supporting characters from outside his office let alone from beyond the legal profession. This limits the potential for situations and also for a proper exploration of questions relating to how lawyers operate. Consequently when the Owl seeks a lawyer in issue #3, this raises the question of whether lawyers should represent those they know to be guilty. It was a few years before comics would start exploring such ethical dilemmas so instead we get a “this is how it works” explanation from Daredevil as he rushes across town after taking the case despite Foggy’s initial rejection. Unfortunately with no non-legal workers in the cast, the task of raising this question is given over to Foggy and the way Daredevil summarises the issue doesn’t help to enhance his partner’s gravitas. Instead, Foggy is all too often treated as a figure of fun, especially when he tries to build himself up with Karen by pretending Spider-Man’s hunch is right and he really is “secretly” Daredevil, to the point of obtaining a costume and agreeing to what he thinks will be a staged fight with the Gladiator.

Karen is treated with more dignity and respect, but at this stage she is unable to escape the limitations of so many early Silver Age romantic interests. The Marvel ones seem to nearly all fall into one of two categories – either Daddy’s Girls largely defined by their fathers (e.g. Janet van Dyne, Betty Banner or Doris Evans) or young working women in jobs subordinate to men and infatuated with one of the men around their office (e.g. Pepper Potts, Betty Brant or Jane Foster). Karen fits the pattern of the second so neatly she might have been designed by computer. Just to add to the dismissive approach to women, she is frequently defined by her looks in ways that would be unthinkable barely a few years later. Was there a reluctance to be bolder with the character? Was it inconceivable to instead make her a partner in the firm and thus more of an equal to Matt? Alternatively, once the series got going, perhaps to have her training on the side to become a lawyer herself? But instead throughout this run she remains a disappointing cipher whose main developments revolve around being courted by Foggy but having feelings for the reluctant Matt.

Being the last of Marvel’s early Silver Age series to be launched, it was inevitable that there’d be guest appearances early on. The Thing shows up in the second issue but only to get Matt to check a lease. Ka-Zar pops up twice but on both occasions the series is stepping heavily beyond its basis in New York crime and instead briefly making Matt/Daredevil a travelling adventurer, a role that at this stage he just doesn’t seem suited for. But the most significant guest appearance is by Spider-Man. I’ve looked at his appearance in issue #16 & #17 once already, so won’t repeat myself too much other than to note that the plot follows what was fast becoming an overused formula of one hero being falsely accused, leading to the other fighting him until realising the truth and the two then team up against the real foe. But Spider-Man has a wider impact on the series, first by turning up at the office after using his Spider-Sense to track down Daredevil, and assuming he’s Foggy (leading to the latter playing along with this for a brief while in order to impress Karen before it all goes wrong), but also later on in issue #24. Spider-Man himself doesn’t appear in the issue, but he sends Matt Murdock a letter saying he knows the lawyer is Daredevil but won’t reveal the secret; however because Matt is missing Karen opens it. For Spider-Man it’s an utterly bizarre move to commit another hero’s identity to paper, and there’s also no indication as to how he’s reached this conclusion nor why he feels the need to do this. (The issue came out the same month as Amazing Spider-Man #45 but there’s nothing in that title from around that period that even mentions this, let alone explains it. Daredevil’s most recent appearance there had been Annual #3, where he gave a reference for Spidey to the Avengers, but didn’t actually meet the wallcrawler himself.) And without Spider-Man actually appearing, could the letter in fact have been sent by someone else? It’s a possibility that isn’t explored here. However the accusation forces Matt into a convoluted situation whereby he tells Karen and Foggy that Daredevil is in fact his previously never mentioned twin brother Mike Murdock and then once in the hole digs deeper by having to pose as said brother. Given the comic conventions of the era meant that even the flimsiest of disguises could fool one’s best friends and co-workers, it’s perhaps a little harsh to dismiss Foggy and Karen for not immediately seeing through this – indeed Foggy does at first doubt Matt’s claim. But it means the volume ends with a rather convoluted situation in which Matt has to juggle three separate identities and somehow undo the mess.

The other major development set down in the issues in this volume is the introduction of the core of Daredevil’s Rogues Gallery (although there are some big names on it who don’t show up until much later). A sizeable number of new villains are introduced in this run and they include: the Fixer, the Owl, the Purple Man, the Matador, Mr Fear, Stilt Man, Klaus Kruger, the Organizer and his Organization (no that really is what it’s called) including Cat Man, Ape Man, Bird Man and Frog Man (no relation to others who’ve gone by those names), the Plunderer (Parnival Plunder), Dr Karl Stragg, the Masked Marauder, the Gladiator, the Tri-Android (made up of the Brain, the Dancer and the Mangler) and finally the Leap Frog. There are also some villains from other series including Electro, the Ox, the Eel, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Maggia. Whilst the first couple of issues are an inauspicious start, with his first foe, the Fixer, dying in their single encounter and the second issue seeing a clash with a Spider-Man foe breaking into the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the series soon starts getting some on the bigger names set down. Daredevil is often accused of having a poor set of villains, especially when compared to Spider-Man, but there’s strong potential in many of them here, especially the Owl and the Masked Marauder who both bring strong levels of cunning and gravitas that make them credible as crime lords, or Mr Fear, the Purple Man or the Gladiator who in their very different ways each make credible solo threats. But it’s also true that some of them are very much products of their era and have not aged well, such as the Matador. There are also those who were probably good ideas but don’t quite work in practice – Stilt Man for instance is not the most manoeuvrable of villains when his stilts are extended. To the series’ credit Leap Frog is presented as being slightly silly from the outset. But there are some others who come out bizarre, particularly the Ox and Dr Karl Stragg who in one issue swap bodies only for each to find the other’s nature is slowly taking them over. The Ox hadn’t been a particularly well developed character up to this point and so any brutish mind in that body would have worked, but it’s still an awkward development that ultimately doesn’t offer much. It’s also one of the earliest cases of a foe established in one hero’s series (in this case Spider-Man’s) having major developments in another’s. When a character is permanently adopted by a new series (such as Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch joining the Avengers around this time) then it’s reasonable, but when they make a one-off appearance then such bold changes feel more illegitimate.

There are no real long term mystery villains in these twenty-five issues. The Masked Marauder may live up to his name, but there’s no teasing about his identity. The one mystery is in a two-part story that sees what I think is the earliest Marvel example of another often used plotline – politicians staging attacks on them to boost their crime fighting credentials. A two-part story sees Foggy recruited as a candidate for the Reform Party (nothing to do with the real life one created three decades later) which comes under attack from the mysterious “Organizer” who arranges a string of attacks to help poll ratings. There’s supposed to be a mystery over which of the candidates is the Organizer but it’s really quite obvious – so obvious in fact that when first reading it I assumed it was a double bluff but they didn’t do that sort of thing back then.

A core feature of Daredevil is his blindness, but even in the 1960s there were some successful cures. In the early issues of the series Karen repeatedly tries to persuade Matt to undergo surgery but he’s reluctant to, as he’s scared it will deprive him of his enhanced other senses. Issue #9 finally addresses the issue with the bizarre development that Klaus Kruger , a university contemporary of Matt and Foggy, is now the ruler of the small state of “Lichtenbad” who offers to arrange for Matt’s treatment by the leading eye specialist who now resides there, but it’s all a trick. In fact Kruger is a harsh ruler who has lured experts in many fields to build a robot army to conquer the world. Exactly why eye surgeons and lawyers are necessary for this is never explained, but the story serves its purpose in cutting off the prospect of Matt’s sight being restored and thus preserving the basis of the series. It was quite a bold move to have a superhero with a disability, even if the series in practice sometimes acts as though his radar sense is just as good as sight, and undoing that would have been a major mistake.

Overall this first volume of Daredevil is a mixed bag, with a number of good stories and developments, but also some weak stories, particularly all of the ones that take him away from New York. The art in the first half is also poor due to the rapid turnover of artists and some rush jobs, though the second half more than makes up for it. But it’s not the most ground breaking of series – by the time it came out many of the bold developments that the Marvel Silver Age brought had already come, and Daredevil was largely a consolidation of such practices. When compared to the equivalent issues of Amazing Spider-Man these ones seem significantly weaker, with the writing much more inconsistent and a reluctance to do too much bold stuff beyond the basic idea of the character. Daredevil has often suffered from being branded a second-tier character, both in his own stories and in the real world, and unfortunately his early issues do little to dispel that notion.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Essential Human Torch volume 1

The first of the “extra” volumes is Essential Human Torch volume 1, which reprints the Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #101-134 and Annual #2. As previously noted, Strange Tales was one of a number of anthology series produced by Marvel that carried various genres during its run and is best known for introducing Dr. Strange, then also running Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. But before that the Human Torch was given his own solo feature from issue #101 onwards. This was a boom time for Marvel - following the success of the Fantastic Four, the summer of 1962 saw four superhero strips launched in separate anthologies - as well as the Torch there was Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy (although it was cancelled after one issue), Thor in Journey into Mystery and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (reviving a character from a previous one-off science fiction story - if you’re ever on QI and get asked which was Marvel’s second superhero feature, think carefully before you risk an answer), all launched in June or July (cover dated August or September). But note that in the long run the only one of the strips to last was Thor, with Spider-Man seeing his anthology immediately cancelled whilst neither the Human Torch nor Ant-Man would last more than a few years. These last two strips languished in obscurity and the Human Torch became the very last of the early Silver Age Marvel superhero features to get an Essential volume, with this one not coming out until the start of 2004, just after a period when it seemed the Essentials had died. So was the obscurity deserved or unjust?

Both the writing and art in the series is a little turbulent. All but one issue is at least plotted by Stan Lee who takes over the full writing from Annual #2 and issue #114 onwards, bar #132 which is written by Larry Ivie. The earlier issues are scripted by Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and “Joe Carter” who was a pseudonym for Jerry Siegel (yes that Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman). Most of the art is by Jack Kirby or Dick Ayers, with one issue by Carl Burgos (the creator of the original Human Torch) and the last five by Bob Powell. This is quite an impressive line-up of creators, suggesting the strip wasn’t regarded as in any way disposable, though a more permanent creative team would have been helpful.

The “Marvel Age” saw comics doing things different from the norm. In place of the almost timeless adventures where characters went through much the same pattern over and over again, there was now a stronger emphasis of character growth and development. Heroes were no longer gods in mortal form, but instead real people with real problems. The public were no longer all accepting, all worshipping of their heroes. It was a very changed era in which the same old same old types of strips were superseded by something bold and dynamic.

But not everything reflected the changes. Some strips just presented heroes going through a string of adventures with no real developments, no serious obstacles in their personal lives, and few signs of the changes coming elsewhere. One such strip was the Human Torch.

Obscurity has been kind to these adventures. When compared to many of the contemporary Marvel offerings they feel highly disposable and inconsequential. At the same time Spider-Man was going from strength to strength, the Torch was going from forgettable villain to forgettable villain. In no way was the world being set on fire.

Now some of this could be the restraints of being a spin-off from the Fantastic Four, with the expectation that major developments for the Torch would happen there, leaving his own strip as a mere side offering. But the strip itself tried to offer a different perspective, with the focus being on the Torch’s hometown of Glenville rather than Manhattan and beyond as seen in the FF’s own book. However this volume does not show the setting being really built on. There are very few regular supporting characters and hardly any attempt to build on situations in Johnny Storm’s regular life. In the first twenty-two issues we get some appearances by the other members of the Fantastic Four and more rarely the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters, but otherwise the supporting cast is limited to his girlfriend Doris Evans who appears from time to time (and it may just be the black & white, but there are a number of times when she and Susan Storm look so similar it’s easy to confuse them at a glance). And even she is underused, largely appearing only to berate Johnny for a constant string of broken dates, even though she knows perfectly well why he’s done so.

This is to my mind one of the biggest missed opportunities in the series. In the first few issues Johnny tries to maintain his secret identity, even to the point of staging elaborate gimmicks to disguise his going into action. Yet he’s living with his sister whose identity is publicly known as is the family nature of the Fantastic Four. Why precisely did Johnny ever think people wouldn’t realise he was the Torch? Issue #107 solves this with the revelation that in fact everybody knows Johnny is the Torch and was just respecting his privacy. Was it really the case that up to now his home life was never disturbed by eager fans, anti-fire busybodies, reporters or enemies? Was John F. Kennedy’s America really such a place where public figures were given such respect and privacy? (Okay the President himself may have been doing things in private, but elected politicians usually had the benefit of experience and actively took steps to guard themselves.) Once even Johnny knows he doesn’t have a secret identity, very little is done with this although the odd foe does know where to come looking. But there’s no real exploration of the impact in areas such as his school life. How does he cope with trying to be an ordinary student who has so many distractions? How do his fellow students react to having a celebrity in their midst? Do the school authorities try to capitalise on his celebrity status? Similarly whilst his sister may also have powers and protections, how do the neighbours react to having a superhero in the vicinity? Does he send house prices soaring through fame, or plummeting because of the perceived danger both from his powers and from the foes he might attract? The obvious point of contrast is with the early Spider-Man adventures where Peter Parker’s non-costumed life was quite prominent, especially his experience in school. It is a pity that such opportunities were missed.

The last dozen issues see a change of focus as the Thing is permanently added, turning the strip into a permanent team-up, predating the likes of Captain America and the Falcon, Daredevil and the Black Widow or Power Man and Iron Fist by several years. But there was already a regular team book featuring these two – Fantastic Four. And the similarity is compounded by an even greater use of foes from that title, as well as further appearances by Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman plus other supporting FF cast members such as Alicia Masters. Was it really necessary to have “Half the Fantastic Four” when the whole thing was available elsewhere? Indeed several of the stories could easily have been run in Fantastic Four, particularly “The Mystery Villain!” in issue #127, a mystery that is so hard to penetrate that the only reason it takes until page five to deduce is because the villain doesn’t appear as such until then. The very core idea of the Fantastic Four is that it a family of adventurers who all bring different elements to the reckoning. As a result it’s been very rare for any replacement members to actually last and the original line-up invariably reasserts itself. Having only half the team for an extended run just doesn’t generate the same magic, but nor does it offer the special focus that solo stories offer. This run straddles the two and misses the magic of both.

The stories contain a variety of villains who can be broken down into three categories – brand new creations, villains from Fantastic Four and villains from other series altogether. In the first category we have the Destroyer (unrelated to others of that name), the Wizard, Zemu, Paste-Pot Pete, the Acrobat, the Painter, the Sorcerer, Asbestos Man, the Eel, the Fox, Plantman, the Rabble Rouser, Captain Barracuda, the Beetle, “the Mystery Villain” and Professor Jack. You could perhaps add broadcaster Ted Braddock, who wages a J. Jonah Jameson style campaign against the Torch but it lasts less than an issue as he changes his mind, and publicly says so, when the Torch’s actions save his son. Overall this is quite an intense creative rate. But I’m willing to bet many of you are already copying and pasting some of these names into a search engine to find out who the heck they are. Only about four have really made a lasting impact – the Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete (albeit under a new name of “the Trapster”), the Eel and the Beetle. And none of these are remotely A-List villains – the Wizard may have been treated as the Torch’s arch enemy and gone on to be used quite a bit, but the truth is he hasn’t aged as well as some foes and his role in the “Acts of Vengeance” conspiracy was very much punching above his weight. The Beetle and the Eel have been at best third tier foes seeking greater recognition but never really making it, whilst the name “Paste-Pot Pete” has dogged the character and kept him as a figure of fun despite his attempts to become more serious (which begin here, though he doesn’t adopt his new name in this volume). Otherwise the originated foes are generally forgettable and most have only come back on a few occasions to reinforce their lowly status. The Destroyer is the obligatory Evil Communist Agent that many of the early Silver Age heroes fought – this particular one is trying to close tall rides at an amusement park because customers can see the quiet bay where a Communist submarine surfaces. Zemu is the ruler of the other cliché of the era, the alien race seeking to conquer Earth by bizarre methods – here they’re reaching Earth from another dimension by using a portal in a swamp and have to stop a housing estate being built next to it. The other foe who gets referenced quite a bit is the Acrobat, primarily for his second appearance in which he disguises himself as the long missing Captain America!

“The Human Torch meets Captain America” may have won the Alley Award for Best Short Story that year, but soon after it dropped off the radar such that it wasn’t until 1999 (real time) that any Captain America story dealt with the real Cap’s reaction to having been impersonated. Looking at it now it’s easy to see why as it’s actually very silly even by the standards of this volume as there are some major leaps of logic. After having disappeared for many years (precisely how long is never specified), the legend of World War II comes out of retirement to appear at an antique car fair! After an attempt to steal a priceless car fails, Captain America passes himself off as the hero to the acclaim of all but the Torch, then later frees his two accomplices. The henchmen set off in a Ferrari to lure all the cops and the Torch after them, whilst Captain America breaks into a small town banks and steals three bags of money, then retreating to his floating sky platform. When the Torch shows up, Cap escapes via a rocket but with the Torch in pursuit Cap steals an asbestos-lined lorry and traps the Torch inside it. However the Torch burns his flame to turn it into a compressed gas that explodes open the truck and he captures “Captain America” to unmask him as the Acrobat. Later the Torch looks at an old Captain America comic, which gives away his identity as Steve Rogers, and wonders what happened to the real Cap and will he ever return. (A caption confesses the story was a test to see if the readers wanted this. Looking back it’s surprising that Captain America took a few years to be revived, and had to be tested first, whilst the Human Torch was re-envisaged from the start and the Sub-Mariner revived much as before just a few months later.) The whole story just doesn’t work – does nobody see the silliness of Cap coming out of retirement for a car fair? And why does a man with all the resources to have a disposable Ferrari and a floating sky platform go to all this effort to steal a rather small amount of cash? Does nobody see through all this? And finally like so many other villains the Acrobat can get his hands on asbestos quite easily. It’s true that in 1963 asbestos did not have the reputation it does today (although the health and legal communities had been aware of it for some decades), but the number of villains who just happen to have this fire-proof material to hand, even when they weren’t expecting the Torch, strains credulity.

As well as the originated villains, the stories also see several from other series. The ones used from the pages of the Fantastic Four are the Sub-Mariner, Puppet Master, the Terrible Trio – Bull Brogin, Yogi Dakor and “Handsome Harry” Phillips – and the Mad Thinker. This is a more mixed bag as the Sub-Mariner was initially built up to be the main rival to Doctor Doom as the Four’s archenemy, but the Puppet Master and Mad Thinker are again foes who haven’t stood the test of time. And the Terrible Trio is a rather lame team of three villains with different skills. I guess with the Enforcers running about there wasn’t much room for a second version of that concept. Meanwhile villains from other series include the Sandman (from Amazing Spider-Man), Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (from the X-Men; this is when they were still part of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) and Kang the Conqueror (from the Avengers). Their appearance here was one of the earliest to show Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch actually trying to escape from Magneto, but finding the wider world hostile, and helped to lay the foundations for their eventual reformation as part of the Avengers. Meanwhile the Sandman’s appearance sees the Torch almost force himself on a foe looking for revenge on Spider-Man, and started the process by which the Sandman became at least as much a Fantastic Four villain as a Spidey one, later becoming a member of the Frightful Four.

As well as the villains we get a few guest stars. The other Fantastic Four members show up in some stories and occasionally help the Torch. Then there are two of the other obvious teamings. Annual #2 guest-stars Spider-Man in his first ever guest appearance, in what seems to be the first ever Marvel story to employ the formula of one hero being mistakenly assumed to have gone bad, leading to the other fighting him before realising the truth and the two team up against the real villain. It’s an okay piece and shouldn’t be blamed for all its imitators, but the villain is the forgettable Fox. (It’s also let down by the worst reproduction in the volume; whilst all the regular issues look pretty good, the reproduction of the annual is far cruder.) Issue #120 features a team-up with Iceman that doesn’t involve a fight between the two heroes but instead sees them fighting crooks who raid a tourist boat, with each hero helping to deal with the other. More surprisingly is issue #130’s tale, “Meet the Beatles!” (a title which probably carries even more weight in the US where an album of that name was released) although the Fab Four only meet the members of the Fan Four very briefly as the Torch and Thing wind up missing the concert to chase crooks who steal the payroll. I wonder if the band’s brief appearance was licensed? (Though given some of the terrible deals made in this era, I doubt the Beetles themselves would have seen anything of it.)

The Torch’s powers in this volume are somewhat in flux, often adapting to suit the purposes of the plot. At times it seems as though he can manipulate fire as if it were a living safe energy like Green Lantern’s energy powers and create constructs such as cages and fake Torches out of fire with seemingly no fuel at all. At other times the Torch finds his flame exhausted, limiting his effectiveness for a while, but again this weakness only occurs when needed. There’s some weak comic book science about the flame becoming a gas in confined spaces that allows him to escape traps with pressure when needs be, but he doesn’t always use this. It’s another sign of how the strip was something of a throwback to the simpler sillier era when powers suited the convenience of the stories and development was rare.

The stories in this volume came out during a time of great change in superhero comics. However whilst the Fantastic Four was setting new standards for bold adventuring and the Amazing Spider-Man was offering developed, ongoing teen angst and soap, Strange Tales’s Human Torch stories were something of a throwback. There were a few brief signs of the changes with a hero who argued with his fellows, but otherwise this is a story of a teen hero who had no real problems that couldn’t be overcome in a single issue, who had next to no supporting cast of his own and who fought a series of largely forgettable villains. Whilst Spider-Man was taking the genre boldly forward, the Human Torch was very much parked at the rear. The comparison between the two strips could not be starker. It’s unsurprising that the Thing had to be brought in to shore up the strip or that it ultimately lasted less than three years and was then mostly forgotten. Marvel had a good string of hits in the early 1960s, but this was very definitely a miss.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Into the spin-offs

I’m waiting for the next Essential Spider-Man volumes. They may be some time. So in the meantime, following the reaction to my look at the Spider-Woman and Punisher volumes, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the similar or related series that have also been collected in the Essentials. Some were launched to seemingly capture a similar field to Spider-Man. Others initially built themselves around characters from his series, sometimes borrowing guest cast members, sometimes spinning off minor characters.

The largest collection by far is Essential Daredevil, which has so far notched up five volumes, and, in addition, several later issues have also popped up in some of the other Essential volumes (such as Essential Punisher volume 1). On top of all this ol' Hornhead's book is also the most frequent one to appear in the guest appearances posts. Daredevil was created in part as a reaction to the success of Spider-Man (as shown most obviously on the first issue’s cover) and over the years he has become one of the wallcrawler’s closest allies but not without some tension as their relationship developed, particularly due to different outlooks. The two series have shared villains, supporting cast members, creators and more, so it feels natural to take a look at Daredevil’s adventures to see how they compare.

Another character who has frequently overlapped with Spider-Man over the years is the Human Torch, who once had his own solo series in the pages of Strange Tales which lasted for nearly three years and included Spider-Man’s first significant guest appearance. In later years he would go on to be Daredevil’s sole rival as Spider-Man’s best friend amongst other superheroes. (Early in the planning stages for Marvel Team-Up the series was going to feature a regular teaming of the two, similar to the early Super-Villain Team-Up issues focusing on Doctor Doom and Namor the Sub-Mariner, rather than a rotating guest-star book. A permanent teaming of Spidey and the Torch would have made for quite an interesting series...) Both because of this and because he was Marvel’s other teenage solo hero of the early Silver Age, it’s interesting to see how differently he was handled and why he wasn’t as successful as his rival turned friend.

Moving into the 1970s we find another take on the concept of a teenager who unexpectedly gains superpowers, this time a supposedly ordinary one, which came with The Man Called Nova. Intentionally homaging Spider-Man, the first issue even proclaimed this with the wording “In the Marvelous tradition of SPIDER-MAN!” right at the top of the cover. Rather less intentionally the series’s initial set-up was also homaging DC’s Green Lantern (the Silver Age version). The book lasted nearly three years, although it went bimonthly after the first year and a half, and en route it actually included a crossover with Amazing Spider-Man midway through the series (which is also included in Essential Spider-Man volume 8). This time it’s interesting to see just how far the homages ran and whether that was a factor in the series’s ultimate failure.

A second 1970s series of interest that lasted only a couple of years was one that initially entrenched itself in Spider-Man’s world (as shown most dramatically by the characters on the cover of the first issue) even though the wallcrawler himself didn’t appear in costume. Ms. Marvel was a spin-off from Captain Marvel and represented an attempt by the company to simultaneously ride the era’s wave of feminism, secure a trademark with the company name in it (according to this comment by later Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter), and try to have a lasting series with a female superhero. But instead the series crashed within a couple of years, clocking up few issues than her (near) contemporaries Spider-Woman, She-Hulk and the Dazzler. The overlap in characters with Spider-Man strongly encourages a look.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting my opinions on the various Essential volumes as before (although the postings will be a little slower), with a particular focus on comparisons with Spider-Man and how many elements overlap. So stick around!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...