Friday, 9 August 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 2

Power Pack Classic volume 2 has within it issues #11 to #17, plus Uncanny X-Men #195 and the graphic novel Power Pack and Cloak & Dagger: Shelter from the Storm. All the Power Pack issues are written by Louise Simonson, with the Uncanny X-Men issue by Chris Claremont and the graphic novel by Bill Mantlo. All but one of the Power Pack issues are drawn by June Brigman with a fill-in by Brent Anderson. The Uncanny X-Men issue is drawn by John Romita Jr and the graphic novel by Sal Valluto. The graphic novel was actually published in 1989 whereas the regular issues in this volume are from 1985, but the status quo it presents can only fit into the early years of the series, as we'll see when looking at a future volume.

In my review of volume 1, I criticised the excessive number of guest appearances by the rest of the Marvel universe, at least one in every issue once the family moved to New York. The situation is slightly improved here as, discounting Franklin Richards and Jarvis (the Avengers' butler - at this point the Baxter Building had been destroyed, forcing the Fantastic Four to temporarily stay with the Avengers) since one is a new member and the other part of his existing status quo, there are only appearances by other heroes in issues #12 & #15, albeit with some slack picked up by the Uncanny X-Men issue and the graphic novel. The only villains from outside the series are the Morlocks in the first two issues and the X-Men crossover. Otherwise the series spends some time developing its own recurring villains in the forms of both the Snarks and the Bogey-Man, their father's ex-boss embittered by his downfall and now donning battle armour in a one-man war against the children.

Whilst issue #12 leads into a crossover with Uncanny X-Men, with the latter included here, issue #15 follows up on an issue of Thor that isn't in the collection. It's easy to work out the necessary details without out, but it's another sign of how the series can be over integrated with the rest of the Marvel universe. Issue #15 also has one of the most misleading covers, with Beta Ray Bill prominently shown yet he's only on one page and doesn't interact with the children. Another omission is Fantastic Four #282, the first half of which began the process of introducing a new member (although where possible it would probably best be truncated as the second half of the issue is both a Secret Wars II crossover and the middle part of a major Psycho-Man storyline). However once again the issues here move at a pace that means it possible to not even realise the dreams Franklin refers to had actually been shown.

Power Pack issues #16-17 see the addition to the team of Franklin Richards, the son of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, who takes the codename of "Tattletale". Being even younger than Katie it would be tempting to see this as a "Cousin Oliver" move (and he's a cute blond kid to boot), but in his two issues collected here he holds his own well, even when fighting with Katie over silly stuff, and is endearing rather than annoying. But despite the feud, and her jealousy at no longer being the youngest one and thus special, she suggests letting him join them. (Franklin's somewhat limited ageing has been a source of much fan comment over the years so it would be interesting to look at latter day adventures involving both him and other Power siblings see at what different rates they've aged relative to each other.) His available powers are primarily the ability to see the future in his dreams but this proves critical in allowing the team (as we must now call them since he isn't related to the others) to quickly locate the other new arrival, Kofi Whitemane, a young Kymellian from the same family as Aelfyre "Whitey" Whitemane, who gave the Power siblings their abilities in the first place. Kofi is an interesting addition, reinforcing the alien connection of the children's powers but as a youngster himself he is still on a learning curve, and is sometimes surprised at how the Power siblings have managed to adapt their powers. Including Friday, seven is probably the maximum size for a team book before it becomes unwieldy, but fortunately the smartship only appears from time to time. As Franklin only gets his costume and codename at the end of the last regular issue in this volume, it's not yet possible to see how the series can handle such an expanded cast.

The series deals with some surprisingly mature themes and demonstrates that regardless of the characters' ages this is not a kiddie title. We see the siblings facing the horrors of kidnapping, the shock of waking up to find no-one recognises them and the horror of having both bodies and minds twisted so that they will no longer remember who they truly are. There's exploration of how loss can leave people twisted and angry with the world, whether the Morlock Annalee mourning her children, Batman Bates mourning a baseball career cut short by war, or Carmody the Bogey-Man, Professor Power's ex boss, mourning his life before the children destroyed the anti-matter converter. The kids face more down to earth problems as well such as school rivalries that see bullies manipulate situations to get others into trouble and unjustly punished, or the horrors that lurk in the sewers such as alligators. Throughout it all they retain a spirit of adventure but never drift into naivety. However there is one point where it would be nice if the series did go out of its way to explain something. Issue #13 sees the children go to a baseball match where Jack's hero's record is under threat, but heroes can often turn out to not be all one expects. It's a sombre tale of hope, failure and expectations, but it's a little hard to follow at times if one knows nothing about the rules of baseball and just what is happening in the game at any given moment.

The volume concludes with a graphic novel from 1989. Now I'm generally rather biased against graphic novels. Often they seem to be excessively priced - this one had a cover price of US $7.95 at a time when the regular series went for about $1.00 - and never have anything like as much story as the price indicates. Sometimes the art and more sophisticated colour can make up for this a bit (and in a colour reprint such as here the reproduction works, whereas the black & white Essentials haven't been kind at all to graphic novels) but nowhere enough to justify all the extra expense. Fortunately many of them are inconsequential and can be ignored if one wishes, but occasionally they're a core part of the continuity so have to be read if one is to get the complete story (and in the days of collecting back issues mainly via comic shops, past graphic novels were particularly difficult to locate). They're also often a pain to store, especially the Marvel ones from the 1980s which used an unusual page size. Of course when they come in collected editions the only real question is whether they consume space unnecessarily but here they take up the space that would otherwise have been given to only a couple of issues. Still it's hard to set aside one's dislikes of the format completely. Despite the order of billing, this is really a Cloak and Dagger story at heart, written by their co-creator, with Power Pack not even appearing until nearly halfway through. It focuses on the plight of runaways, showing two teenagers, one escaping a violent and abusive parent, the other an overprotective one. They find themselves in the darkness of the city where even supportive shelters contain their own dangers due to competition for numbers for funding and where life isn't the great escape they expected. At the heart of one shelter is a twisted man with the power to absorb others' life-force, a side effect of drugs that failed to cure his disease. There are clear parallels with the lives of Cloak and Dagger, with a look at the ethics of the former as he struggles to control his hunger for light. Amidst all this the Power siblings are very much sidelined, primarily only serving to locate where Dagger has been taken, and the story could easily have been told without them. It's not a bad Cloak and Dagger tale but it's a utterly unnecessary Power Pack one and could easily have been left out in favour of a few more issues from the regular series. It's also unusual in being set some years earlier than when it was published - was this either a conscious reaction against later developments, a delay in production or a writer returning after a break from regular Marvel work who was out of touch with recent developments? (The last one is unlikely as Mantlo's regular comic writing had ended only a year earlier when his run on Alpha Flight concluded, and he instead focused on his legal career. I think this graphic novel was the last comic he wrote, though until 1993 occasional other stories saw print in the various inventory series Marvel Fanfare and Marvel Super-Heroes.)

The graphic novel aside, this collection shows the series coming along well and developing its own mythology. The guest appearances have also been cut down, removing distractions and allowing the series' own characters to grow and develop. Whilst no individual issue or storyline leaps out as especially spectacular, overall it's a pretty solid volume that continues to put the children through a diverse set of situations that make them more than meet their potential.

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