Saturday, 29 June 2013

Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1

I originally prepared this post to appear a little later but here in London today it's Pride. In honour of that I thought I'd take a look at an Essential starring an LGBT character. However there haven't been that many with their own series, and none with runs that have been Essentialised so far, but there is one featuring the early days of a character who in recent years has been depicted as gay. And without further ado...

Marvel hasn't always published just superheroes. Indeed there were times when they published no superheroes at all. They have long put out titles in many other genres and up until the early 1960s the company tended to follow the contemporary trends in the comics industry and wider American society. And one of those long running trends was the Western.

The company had previously published many Western titles as part of a large and diverse set of books until distribution problems in 1957 forced a massive scaling back of the line. Amongst the books was one called The Rawhide Kid which lasted just sixteen issues. Then in 1959 a new TV series began called simply Rawhide. The chanced to have a comic with that word in the name was too good an opportunity to miss and so the title was revived in 1960 with issue #17 - in those days the market had a very different attitude to numbering and preferred to continue existing sequences rather than have new issue #1s all the time. This was in spite of the series featuring a new and younger character (although in later years there would be attempts to make the previous Rawhide Kid an older version of this one to expand the supply of material for reprints).

Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1 contains issues #17 to #35. As bonus material we get a cover gallery of the first twenty-eight issues of the reprint series Mighty Marvel Western which featured the Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, the Two-Gun Kid and Matt Slade. All the issues are written by Stan Lee and drawn by a mix of Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Gene Colan, Paul Reinman, Al Hartley, Jack Davis and Sol Brodsky. At least that's what the credits on the contents pages say, as this was still an era when crediting creators was far from standard, though a number of the stories are signed by the writer and the artist. However some other stories don't give away the name of their artists and so we're reliant on ancient files that may not always be complete and/or the assessment of latter day experts looking at the artwork and deducing who produced it.

The format of all these issues is pretty straightforward - about eighteen pages of the Rawhide Kid, divided into two or three stories with the longer tales sometimes divided into separate chapters. About five pages are given over to a non-Rawhide Kid story. And finally each issue carries a two-page text story. Annoyingly these were often spread across each issue and this volume doesn't always take the opportunity to reunite them. These tales again don't feature the Rawhide Kid and instead tell of the problems of a succession of one-off characters spread across the west, dealing with everything from water supply disputes to hunting on Indian lands to preventing the theft of gold. Going by the production numbers printed on them they appear to be reprints but I'm not sure where from. If I understand correctly they were included in order to qualify the comic book for a particular status by having some text pages (was it to do with discounted mailing for subscriptions?) but they don't add a great deal. It's easy to see why many readers, both of the original comics and of the Masterworks and Essential editions, have largely dismissed them. I'm guessing that by the time the Marvel Silver Age superheroes were launched either the rules were relaxed or things like the Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages qualified instead.

The issues also contain a non-Rawhide Kid strip story. Such stories could no doubt be prepared for and reprinted in any of Marvel's western titles, allowing for some flexibility. The stories are more general tales of the Old West but several feature a remarkable figure who is revealed at the end to be a famous real person. We meet the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson and Doc Holliday. The trick is also deployed in some Rawhide Kid stories such as one where he discovers his fellow stagecoach traveller is the local sheriff Pat Garrett or another sees him cross paths with Jesse James. The historic accuracy of these stories is suspect - for example Hickok is shown as the old sheriff of a town, whereas the real Hickok died aged 39. The Rawhide Kid's year of birth is normally given as 1850 and the tales start just after his eighteenth birthday, thus his adventures seen here take place in at most a few years from 1868 onwards, but Garrett didn't become a sheriff until 1880. And Doc Holliday never became a sheriff at all. But these stories weren't meant to be a history lesson, though I wonder if any children back in the day reproduced some of the dodgey history in their schoolwork. Not all the non-Rawhide Kid stories feature historic characters, with others featuring one-off characters in general western tales.

But as for the Rawhide Kid himself, his adventures offer an interesting glimpse at the earliest Marvel Silver Age. The first eight or so issues of the title are the oldest continuous Marvel material yet reprinted in the Essential programme, predating even the start of the Fantastic Four. We get some prototypes of what would become familiar concepts. The Rawhide Kid himself is Johnny Bart, an orphan raised by his uncle Ben, and the first story sees Ben's murder and the hero avenging him, then opting to use his skills to help others. Later in the first issue the Kid helps solve a cattle rustling affair, but when he outdraws the criminal an arriving sheriff accuses him of not giving a victim a chance and the Kid flees, to become an outlaw. Like Spider-Man it's his own haste and fear that lead him to flee mistaken authority rather than stay and clear his name (there's even a witness to the shooting who offers to help), but in subsequent stories his actions convince a number of sheriffs, bounty hunters and others that he's no killer.

But why doesn't this lead to his name being cleared? The first issue makes it clear that the Kid would be wandering the west helping fight crooks regardless of his own status so it's not as if being cleared or pardoned would have meant the series would have to end there and then. Of course it's one thing for a local lawman to decide the Kid is no criminal to spend time taking in, and another to go through the process of clearing up the charges. The prospect of a pardon does come up a few times though. In issue #20 a bogus marshal tells the Kid the governor has granted a pardon on the condition he hang up his guns, but later on the fakery is exposed. Issue #29 does see one sheriff offer to lobby the state governor for a pardon if the Kid can capture a particularly nasty outlaw. Unfortunately when he brings the outlaw in he learns the sheriff has died and left no record of the offer. Later in issue #33 a sheriff comes up to him but the Kid assumes he will be arrested and rides off. In fact the sheriff was going to take him to the governor to get a pardon, but fleeing puts paid to that. However wouldn't reports eventually filter through to the authorities and result in the Kid's name being cleared? But I guess such logic and strict continuity wasn't yet a permanent feature of comics at the time. In the same vein the Kid's sole companion in some stories is his horse, Nightwind but the horse isn't in every story and the Kid sometimes instead travels by stagecoach. Where Nightwind is and how the two are reunited after such long journeys is a subject left unaddressed. How easy is it to find the Kid? A story in issue #20, and a remarkably similar one in issue #35, looks at how tall tales have exagerrated reports of his description, allowing him to move about freely. But in many other stories he's quickly recognised in whatever town he comes to. And in issue #34 Mister Lightning has no difficulty in tracking him down by asking a sheriff for reports. Presumably there's no co-ordinated effort to deal with the Kid, but it would be remarkably easy for any bounty hunter, publicity seeker or revenge seeking foe to track him down. However overall we should be careful in expecting too much in the realms of continuity or strict logic. This was still an era when Superman repeatedly "proved" that he wasn't Clark Kent, only for Lois Lane and/or Lana Lang to try again in another story without having learned their lesson. It was supposed to be a timeless world where the status quo existed in perpetuity, allowing for the same type of stories to carry on regardless. Many comics, particularly those from Marvel, would eventually move on from the idea but it persists elsewhere - for example The Simpsons doesn't progress much.

Within the first year of the (relaunched) title there was some signs of good ideas beginning to run out. Issue #22 contains the story "Beware!! the Terrible Totem!!" which sees the series take a decidedly bizarre turn, featuring a living monstrous totem pole, an alien who has been long trapped underground until an illegally deep mine awakens him. It goes on a rampage until the Kid lures it to a cliff and pushes it into a bottomless canyon. This story is certainly different from the norm, but it's a bizarre step outside the whole western genre (and when it first appeared the Marvel universe hadn't even been created, let alone had it incorporated the non-superhero titles). The following issue contains a further sign the series is flagging by presenting a new telling of the Rawhide Kid's origin, drawn by the same penciller and inker as before. And it's exactly the same script as before with the only changes being the trimming of the odd speech bubble and caption, and one scene having an extra panel. It doesn't even add the details from the later story that saw the Kid become an outlaw. The opening page claims the story is appearing by popular demand, but it's still lazy to just redraw a story that had appeared a mere year earlier. I know the expectation back then was that a comic's readership would turn over every few years, but a single year seems rather too soon to present almost the same tale twice over. The story does, however, suggest that the "Marvel method" of plotting, drawing and then scripting a story was not yet universal even for Lee-Kirby collaborations.

There's repetition elsewhere with some issues carrying remarkably similar stories. Both issues #20 & #29 contain a tale where the Kid meets a father & son, and the son wants to be like him so the Kid pretends to be a brutish bully who gets driven off, with the son disillusioned to find out his hero is a bully and a coward but the father seeing through the ploy. Issue #33 has a similar tale where the Kid and a girl fall for each other, but when he's about to seek her hand in marriage it's brought home to him that all he can offer her is to be the wife of a hunted man. So once again he pretends to be a nasty character to get her to hate him. (It's another trait that would later be seen with Peter Parker both times when he broke off with Betty Brant.) On other occasions the Kid takes blame for the crimes of others so as to conceal the identity of masked foes such as the Bat and the Raven in order to protect their families, including women who have fallen for him.

Indeed on several occasions throughout this volume the Kid encounters a woman and there's mutual attraction - this was forty years before the MAX series that presented the Kid as gay. Here the phrase "slap leather" is used just as a call to draw guns. The Kid has no supporting cast or ongoing romance. Instead he's an example of the wandering hero who has no place to call home, no support and no ties. Sometimes this approach can restrict a series - I found the Punisher volumes weakened by their limited development but they're from a different age. Here it allows a degree of freshness and the very setting lends itself to this type of approach. The stories pit the Rawhide Kid against a succession of foes and problems out in the Wild West, dealing with rustlers, thieves, bullies, occasional Indians and other traditional problems in the west, and fortunately the series's dabblings with science fiction are limited to the Totem story, though another tale sees him tackle a master hypnotist. The Kid's skill with a gun is incredible but at least the origin story takes the time to establish he was trained by an expert. Only once does he waiver in his commitment to the righteous path of helping others, but he soon returns when he discovers the truth that Jesse James's gang are criminals rather than some latter day Robin Hood. Otherwise the series stays in the realms of traditional morality - that is the traditional morality of westerns.

Issue #30's non-Rawhide Kid story "This is -- a gun!" tells the story of an individual revolver and the many uses it is put to, ending with captions emphasising that a gun is just a device and it's humans who choose how to use it. There's no caption stating "That was a political broadcast on behalf of the National Rifle Association" but it does feel like a piece of anti-gun control propaganda. Other stories, both with and without the Kid, do skirt on the issue of guns and violence but justify it when used for the right purpose and are very much of the view that the problem is the person, give or take one story where a criminal family is supplying Indians with rifles. A western by definition is invariably a glorification of a life at the edge of rigid civilisation, where the individual often had to fend for themselves and the law was limited, and where it was often shoot-or-be-shot. But there isn't much in the stories themselves that emphasises whether the morality is specific to the setting or more generally appropriate. I doubt this crossed many people's minds at the time (although this is seriously off-topic, the US NRA was politically a very different body in the early 1960s from what it has since become - see How NRA's true believers converted a marksmanship group into a mighty gun lobby) and instead we just had a more conventional series, with the western accents and all.

It's quite surprising to see how some words are spelled in these stories, with the lettering at times putting a stronger emphasis on a phonetic rendition of the accents than on correct spellings. So the dialogue gives us the likes of "Yuh", "Yore", "Hoss", "Ree-ward", "Wuz", "Hisself", "Daid", "Figgered", "Mebbe", "Didja", "Heerd", "Leggo", "Injuns", "Muh" and "Git". And then there are other words with letters dropped - "g"s in particular, giving us the likes of "Capturin'", "Nothin'" or "Joinin'". Now there is a strong convention of emphasised accents in westerns and of literature trying to reproduce those accents. But there's also the issue of just who read the issues, and the way that comics can be a useful educational tool in helping children to first learn to read and then develop their spelling. Comics have always been read by all ages, even if some age groups in some countries have at times been reluctant to admit to it, but they've had a particularly strong following amongst children and this was even more the case in the early 1960s. To use spellings that would likely lose children marks if they repeat them in their schoolwork is a rather questionable decision. I don't have any children of my own, but would I be happy if my cousin's boys read these tales and reproduced these spellings when they go to school? On the other hand would "correct" spellings actually be more accurate and/or realistic? Writing is often more formal and correct than speech and so unless some really good transcribers made a study of speech patterns in the Old West we may never know for sure. But subsequent Marvel non-western titles generally use much more accurate spellings (or I've just not noticed much fancy dialogue beyond some emphasised southern and outrageous foreign accents) even though they were steadily pulling the audience's age upwards.

We don't know for sure who was reading the title at the time, but we can get an idea of how many they were. Issue #28 carried a "Statement required by the act of August 24, 1912, as amended by the acts of March 3, 1933, July 2, 1946 and June 11, 1960 (74 Stat. 208) showing the ownership, management and circulation of", or, as they are better known from later years, a "Statement of Ownership" for the title. Posted at the bottom of the issue's text story it includes the following paragraph:
5. The average number of copies of each issue of this publication sold or distributed, through the mails or otherwise, to paid subscribers during the 12 months preceding the date show above was: (This information is required by the act of June 11, 1960 to be included in all statements regardless of frequency of issue.) 150,162
The precise wording is a little awkward and a literal reading implies the title had an average of 150,162 subscribers. I suspect this is a flaw in the wording and perhaps a case of publishers not quite grasping just what was being asked for or how to state it - this was just a year after the law was modified to require circulation figures to be included. (The main purpose of these statements is to identify the owners and publishers of periodicals, in order to maintain their mailing permits for subscriptions.) I would assume we're thus seeing actual recorded sales figures rather than the total print run including unsold returns from newsstands. 150,000 surprised me as I'd come to believe comics sales were much greater in the Silver Age. However there is a wonderful site called Comichron: The Comics Chronicles which has pulled together a lot of the available comics sales data, most notably the declarations from these Statements. The page for 1961 Comic Book Sales Figures shows that it's the sales on the best selling titles that get talked about the most and at this point Marvel was a long way from being an industry leader, though on the available data Rawhide Kid was its second best seller with Tales to Astonish only about thirty-five thousand ahead. Sales data for Marvel in this period is frustratingly incomplete, in part because it often took a few years to include Statements in new titles, but issue #33 carries another statement, this time giving the average sales as 131,183. Again fantastic by today's standards, but not exactly the huge figures of legend. Then according to 1963 Comic Book Sales Figures Rawhide Kid's average sales were up to 194,390, the highest selling Marvel title for which data is available (at least when I looked). For much of the rest of the 1960s it sold on average just over 200,000 copies, suggesting a loyal and dedicated readership. Was the 1962 figure perhaps an underestimate or a product of flawed data collection? Or did the series suffer a drop and then a rebound?

We'll probably never know. But it doesn't matter too much - there have been some brilliant comics that sold very little and some total rubbish that sold many hundreds of thousands or even millions. Rawhide Kid shows its age in its format of multiple stories per issue, when the Marvel superhero comics launched just around the corner soon settled on a single story per issue or even multi-issue stories. It's also an example of the old style continuity, or rather the lack of it. There are no direct contradictions, although some very similar adventures, but there equally isn't much development. Instead we get a set of stories that could be told in almost any order. The simplicity of the approach and tales actually work to their advantage, and when combined with a likeable starring character the result is a series that's quite pleasant to read. It's also interesting to see the inclusion of both strip and text stories that don't feature the lead character (or any from a supporting cast, not that there is one here), again a sign of an older generation of comics. The earliest issues may be the oldest material so far reproduced in an Essential volume but they hold up well after all this time as a good, light fun read.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Essential Thor volume 1

The same day that Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15, another hero made his debut in the pages of Journey into Mystery (yet another of Marvel's anthology series). Issue #83 introduced the Mighty Thor, as the Norse god of thunder was brought to life. Well in a way...

Essential Thor volume 1 reprints the Thor strips from Journey into Mystery #83-112, including the "Tales of Asgard" back-ups from issue #97 onwards. Also included is Thor's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe - Deluxe Edition, though in the first edition (at least) the pages are out of order. There are also a couple of pin-ups.

The first issue is plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby. Lee plots up to issue #96 and then takes over the full scripting on both the lead and back-ups, with issues before then scripted by first Lieber and then Robert Bernstein (under the semi-pseudonym "R. Berns"). Kirby draws all of the "Tales of Asgard" back-ups and most of the leads, with a handful done by variously Joe Sinnott, Don Heck and Al Hartley. The first three stories carry no credit on them, but later on the order of plot-script-art is used and the contents pages are structured accordingly. The order of credit for Thor has become a contentious issue, particularly when the movie of a few years ago carried a "based on" credit that was ordered Lee-Lieber-Kirby, but it seems likely that had there been a credit back in issue #83 it would have been ordered as such. Personally I feel the original order should be used as it's the only way to avoid awkward disputes to which there is no clear answer, but that isn't much help in this particular case.

The very first story in Journey into Mystery #83 is rather atypical of what was to come. Dr Don Blake is on holiday in Norway when he stumbles across first an alien invasion and then a cane that when struck gives him the body and power of Thor. The foes in this story would be forgotten were it not the very first story and there's none of the traditional material associated with the character from his nurse Jane Foster to Asgard and the various other Norse gods who dwell there. As is later made more explicit, this is far from the first time Thor or a Thor has walked the Earth so it's an origin story for Blake but not Thor, whoever that may be.

Who is Thor? It may seem an obvious question at first but it's more complicated than it seems. Is he, as shown in his first story, Dr Donald Blake who has acquired the power of Thor? Or is he, as his relationship with Odin and the rest of Asgard in later issues implies, the true Norse Thunder God? And if he's the latter then just who is Donald Blake? If the two are separate beings fused together then why do they never speak or act as such? We're doubtless seeing the effect of the character not being fully thought through at the start and this would later lead to problems before an attempt to tidy it up (and then much later came one of the most ludicrously unnecessary retcons of all). Asgard first appears in the third story as Loki escapes an age-old imprisonment and seeks revenge on Thor. But the Thor he finds only recognises his foe from legends rather than having the memories. Despite this Loki and the other Asgardians assume that the real Thor is in action. Starting with issue #86 there are multiple times when Thor appeals to Odin for extra help, and then in issue #90 Odin orders Thor against revealing his identity and the latter accepts it without protesting that he isn't actually the original thunder god. In issue #89 Blake, temporarily without his cane, thinks "...even though I haven't the body of Thor, I still have his brain -- his thought processes!" as though he's still thinking of his two identities as more than just different bodies and powers. But increasingly this Thor is treated by all, including himself, as the actual god - in issue #92 he even thinks of Odin as "my father". This leaves open the questions of just who is Donald Blake and exactly what happened when Blake found the hammer Mjolnir, but otherwise the series gets on with things.

Donald Blake's life away from superheroing isn't especially explored. We see him as a reasonable successful medical practitioner who also dabbles in various experiments from time to time, making for a somewhat generic alter ego that isn't too far removed from contemporaries such as Hank Pym. The only supporting cast member at the mortal end of things is his nurse, Jane Foster. Each is attracted to the other but Blake is unable to declare his feelings. It may seem clichéd now, but Jane Foster is (by my reckoning) actually the first working woman girlfriend of the Marvel Silver Age, arriving before the likes of Betty Brant, Pepper Potts and Karen Page. Each works for a living in a white-collar environment, but in a subordinate role, and each is attracted to a man around the office. In three cases the man is their boss but there's no mention of malpractice, being an era when comics didn't descend into such complicated matters. Jane is no wallflower and at times stands up to both the various villains and to Donald Blake when she feels he's been cowardly. She's also drawn to Thor a little, but wisely there isn't a full-blown triangle involving the hero and his own secret identity - that approach had been done to death with Superman. Instead the main impediment to Jane and Donald finding happiness comes from a different source, edicts from Asgard.

Fairly early on we start to see more and more of the other Norse gods and Asgard, providing a steady source of foes but also of continued conflict. By far the key figures is Odin, the ruler of Asgard and Thor's father, and this volume contains a lot of tension as the two repeatedly clash over Thor's desire for Jane and wish to marry her and Odin's refusal to allow his son to marry a mortal. Unfortunately the reasons behind such a key conflict are never properly explored as we never get a very strong exploration of just why Odin feels it is such a bad move. Odin's orders to Thor are often come with the assumption, sometimes explicitly stated, that Odin is right by virtue of his positions both as ruler of Asgard and as Thor's father. Probably more by accident than design the series had stumbled across what would become one of the major social conflicts of the later 1960s as a whole generation rejected the notion of elders and officials having inherent wisdom and that one should do (or not do) something merely because such a person said so. Thor may have long hair but he's not the most natural teenage rebel. It also doesn't help that Odin seems rather quick to form judgements, and whilst he may be able to look down on Earth and see what's happening, he hasn't got sound with the picture and so doesn't always realise why Thor or Jane are acting as they do.

Odin isn't the only other Asgardian introduced here. Between Thor's various visits to Asgard and the back up feature "Tales of Asgard" we meet a variety of others. As well as the various villains we also meet Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge that leads to Asgard, and Balder the Brave. The goddess Sif appears, but at this stage only in "Tales of Asgard" and there's no sign of her role as a potential rival for Thor's affection for Jane Foster.

We get a mixture of the famous and forgotten foes, with several of a type familiar to the early Marvel Silver Age. Thor's very first adventure sees him fight off the Stone Men from Saturn - an alien race trying to conquer the planet. Then in his second story he fights the Executioner, who is no relation to his later Asgardian foe of that name, but the corrupt bearded leader of a Communist revolution in a Latin American country. Now I wonder who he was a parody of? And Communism isn't just seen in fictional countries, with one early tale revolving around the Soviets kidnapping key scientists and another showing "Red" China trying to invade India only to be turned back by Thor and subsequently creating the Radioactive Man to fight him. Back home there are more generic criminals such as Thug Thatcher, or Sandu the fortune-teller who steals from his audience until Loki powers him up. Then there's Professor Zaxton, a corrupt scientist who invents a duplication ray with the added power of giving the duplicates opposite personalities under his mental control. Or there's Merlin, who is revealed to be a mutant (he first appeared the same month as the X-Men launched) who used his powers to fake magic and who has been in suspended animation for a millennium. (I have a feeling he's been since retconned as not the actual Merlin.) Or there's the Lava Man, supreme warrior of his more often seen race, and Skagg the Storm Giant. At the, erm, fantastic end are the Carbon Copy Men, a race of aliens with the ability to disguise themselves. No, nothing like the Skrulls from the Fantastic Four. When captured they are forced to use their shape-changing power to permanently turn them into a form where they forget who they are. Again nothing like the fate of the Skrulls.

More familiar foes include Loki, Thor's half-brother and master of mischief, who first appears in the third adventure and appears regularly thereafter, either attacking Thor directly or empowering agents. In total Loki appears as a villain in thirteen of the thirty lead stories here, as well as appearing in some of the Tales of Asgard back-ups as well. Other big name foes introduced include Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, the Radioactive Man (who originates from "Red" China), the Cobra, Mr. Hyde, the Enchantress, the Executioner, Hela the goddess of death, Surtur the Fire Demon and the Grey Gargoyle. (I'm surprised that his name is spelt that way rather than "Gray" - were both spellings common in the US in the mid 1960s or was the British spelling used to emphasise his foreignness?)

And the very last issue in the volume touches on one of Thor's other great rivalries. He comes across children arguing over who is tougher - himself or the Hulk - and relates a story of an encounter between the two that ended inconclusively. This may have been intended to set up a forthcoming rematch, but it feels odd to be getting a story told in flashback that takes place between panels of an early issue of Avengers, rather than introducing an original situation and building on it. It's also uncertain just which of the two actually is the strongest, in spite of Thor successfully appealing to Odin for all Mjolnir's magic to be suspended for a few minutes to allow a fight based on pure strength.

Indeed Thor's powers and strength levels are often altered in these tales thanks to either appeals to Odin or punishments being arbitrarily imposed (Odin also seems reluctant to just actually tell his son that a particular punishment has been given). It can make for a slightly uneven approach that undermines the tension when Thor is up against an especially powerful foe. However there's less of this as time progresses and Thor increasingly has to resort to brain rather than just brawn. The ultimate comes in his fight against the Grey Gargoyle when his Thor body is turned to stone for twenty-four hours and he has to defeat his foe as Donald Blake.

The early stories are relatively straightforward, perhaps due to the writing being split between plotting, drawing and scripting. There's also rather a heavy emphasis on anti-Communism, with some quite overt propaganda, especially on the point that democracy and communism are incompatible. However once Lee takes over the full scripting from issue #97 onwards we start to get more intricate tales with action flowing from issue to issue, multi-part tales and a sense of direction even if the actual direction isn't too clear beyond the rather repetitive conflict between Thor and Odin about Jane Foster without a great deal of advancement. Otherwise we have a succession of battles that keep to the spirit of Thor as a noble being who fights for the common good. These aren't the most dynamic of Thor stories but they do well to lay out the basic tapestry of the series, with "Tales of Asgard" providing an epic feel (though I'm not sure how true to recorded myths the series actually is). But with Thor the best is yet to come.

The material appears to have been sourced from a mixture of clear remastered black and white pictures and direct reproductions of the printed colour comics. However the latter is of a noticeably higher quality to all previous such scans in earlier Essentials (this volume first appeared in early 2001 and was the first to sport the second cover format), especially in the speech balloons and captions. It seems that developments in scanning technology and digital clean up were used to get a much better page than previous reproductions without master materials. Indeed it almost opens up the question of whether all the pages should have been scanned from colour copies, as sometimes the grey can enhance the effect. However in other places it can make the resulting image too dark and some of the colour doesn't scan so well, producing a dotted smeary grey effect.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The latest guest appearance

This month sees the release of Essential Wolverine volume 7 and within it is another guest appearance by Spider-Man from a much later era than any other, hence its own post. Without further ado...

Wolverine #148 written by Erik Larsen and drawn by Roger Cruz, reprinted in Essential Wolverine volume 7

Essential Wolverine may have only notched up seven volumes so far, despite being launched at the same time as Essential Spider-Man, but because Wolverine's solo series only began in 1988 the Essentials are now all the way up to 2000, the series that's reached further forward than any other (bar a solitary one-shot from 2001 reprinted in Essential Killraven). Issue #148 is part of the "Ages of Apocalypse" crossover and features an alternate take on the New Fantastic Four.

The New Fantastic Four was a brief-lived team that appeared in Fantastic Four #347-349. A renegade Skrull neutralised the original Fantastic Four but then found she was being pursued by other Skrulls and so assembled a team to deal with them. She picked Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk and the second Ghost Rider (Dan Ketch) - at a time when these four just happened to have the topselling solo Marvel titles. After their single mission they disbanded but were later reformed in Fantastic Four #374 when Spider-Man was seeking to help the Human Torch who was wanted by the police and defended by the original Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange advised him to call in other heroes to help. This second appearance was to promote the new Secret Defenders title, whose original premise was Doctor Strange assembling ad hoc teams of heroes for particular missions. The idea of the New Fantastic Four staying together after their first appearance was also the focus of an issue of the second What If? series. Meanwhile the "Ages of Apocalypse" was a follow-on from another X-Men crossover called "Apocalypse: The Twelve"; but all you need to now is that reality has been warped by the mutant Apocalypse and the individual chapters are set in various alternate realities. (The title invokes 1995's event "Age of Apocalypse" which was set in a changed reality but you don't need to know any more about that.) Whew, that's a lot of background!

This particular issue is set in a near future after many of the heroes were wiped out and the New Fantastic Four have regrouped to take the place of the dead old one. Both Spider-Man and Wolverine have dropped their masks, with the whole team now wearing Fantastic Four uniforms, and Peter and Mary Jane's daughter May is living with them in Four Freedoms Plaza (or whatever building was on the traditional site by then) and is now a toddler climbing the walls. This is a dark, gritty team for a dark world, with both Wolverine and Ghost Rider feeling out of place (though each doesn't realise the other has the same concerns) whilst the Hulk is unstable and cycling through his multiple personalities and the associated bodies. Spider-Man is drifting into a Reed Richards role of becoming ever more scientific (in tandem with Bruce Banner/Hulk, at least when the latter has a relevant personality), to the annoyance of Mary Jane. The team initially handles an attack by old Fantastic Four foes Annihilus and Blastaar, and the Harpy, the Hulk's wife transformed into a flying green monster. Then comes news that the US President Robert Kelly has been assassinated by Doctor Doom, seemingly returned from the dead. The team are briefly attacked by Doombots before going to Washington where they fight Doom who is revealed to be a deformed clone, created by the real foe, Arnim Zola, the Nazi geneticist. Suddenly they realise the fake Doom's armour is set to explode and Wolverine cripples Zola before the team make their escape. The four contemplate the ruins of the White House, wondering if that was the real Zola and whether any more Doom clones are about, then see the new President is Graydon Creed, even more extreme than Kelly. They wonder what the future holds...

However, the timelines were resolved before this world could be revisited. The New Fantastic Four have always been a concept that sounds great but is extremely difficult to pull off in practice because the four characters are such individualistic personalities even if they have been used in other tims. Here, though, they've been kept together by the dystopia around them. I'm not at all familiar with the second Ghost Rider but Wolverine and the Hulk seem pretty much in character. Spider-Man seems far more scientific than usual, though when this was published the regular titles showed him with a job at the Tri Corp Research Foundation (although due to everything else he wasn't actually spending much time there). It's never explained why he's revealed his identity to the world - there must be a more substantial reason than just so that he can look like a young Reed Richards - and he's not given a great deal of attention beyond showing glimpses of how he's fallen into the Reed role of not always remembering to spare time for his family. The story itself is petty packed and fast paced, having only a single issue to show everything, but works reasonably well. However even here there are signs the New Fantastic Four could fall apart and I doubt this team could ever work in the long-term in the regular reality.

(Apologies to those who were expecting another subject but the timing of this one crept up on me.)

Friday, 7 June 2013

Randoms and resting

Okay I've now reached the most recent Punisher volume. This isn't the end of this blog by any means but due in part to real life events I'll be posting sporadically in the months to come but will try to keep up with the latest releases, including guest appearances.

Watch out also for my thoughts on some of the other Essential volumes, starting with a character who first appeared on the newsstands the same day as Spider-Man. And as a bonus, here's a picture of one such newsstand from a contemporary television series called Naked City:

Thanks to Homages, Ripoffs, and Great Coincidences: Great Collaborations #1: Hold for Gloria Christmas  for highlighting this.
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