Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4

Another volume of Essential Marvel Team-Up has now been released, slowly closing up one of the gaps in the overall Essential programme. Volume 4 contains issues #76-78 & #80-98, plus Annuals #2 & #3. As previously predicted, omitted is issue #79 which contains a team-up of Spider-Man and Red Sonja, a character Marvel no longer holds the rights for. (However the issue has had a few other reprints and I'll come to it in a special post.) As bonus material the volume also includes three original covers used when some of these issues were reprinted in Marvel Tales.

Writing-wise, the issues in this volume cover the end of Chris Claremont's run and the start of Steven Grant's, with fill-ins by Bill Kunkel, Alan Kupperberg and one plotted by Marv Wolfman & scripted by Roger McKenzie. The annuals are by Claremont and Roger Stern. The art is more mixed with the main artists being Sal Buscema, Mike Vosburg and Carmine Infantino, but there are many other contributors including Alan Kupperberg, Howard Chaykin, Jeff Aclin, Don Perlin, Bob McLeod, Gene Colan, Michael Nasser, Rich Buckler, Pat Broderick, Tom Sutton, Mike Zeck, Jimmy Janes and Will Meugniot. One annual is drawn by Kupperberg and Buscema, the other by Herb Trimpe. Because of all these credits I've created a separate post for the non-regular creator labels.

As per usual here's a full run down of the stars of each issue:
76. Spider-Man and Dr Strange
77. Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel
78. Spider-Man and Wonder Man
80. Spider-Man and Dr Strange and Clea
81. Spider-Man and Satana
82. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
83. Spider-Man and Nick Fury
84. Spider-Man and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
85. Spider-Man, Shang-Chi, the Black Widow and Nick Fury
86. Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy
87. Spider-Man and the Black Panther
88. Spider-Man and the Invisible Girl
89. Spider-Man and Nightcrawler
90. Spider-Man and the Beast
91. Spider-Man and Ghost Rider
92. Spider-Man and Hawkeye
93. Spider-Man and Werewolf
94. Spider-Man and the Shroud, Master of Darkness
95. Spider-Man and Mockingbird
96. Spider-Man and Howard the Duck
97. Hulk and Spider-Woman
98. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
Annual 2. Spider-Man and Hulk
Annual 3. Hulk and Power Man & Iron Fist

Well we finally get a team-up with the Invisible Girl, the only one of the main Fantastic Four left out before, and there's appearances by the Beast from the X-Men/Avengers (and later on other teams) and the Hulk, but otherwise this is very much a tour of the less well known part of the Marvel universe even if Spider-Woman and Howard the Duck had a high profile in their heyday.

Whilst Spider-Man has invariably been Marvel's premier solo hero for most of the past fifty years, there's never been such a clear candidate for the number two slot in all ages. It's interesting to see which heroes get especial promotion in any particular period and the tail end of this volume sees one hero actually taking Spider-Man's place as the header feature. This was the age of the Incredible Hulk TV series, which even all these years later is still Marvel's only real success with live action television, and so it's not surprising to find the Hulk was being pushed more prominently. At the time it also helped to nibble away at the problem of Spider-Man being overused. However the same charge could be applied to the Hulk - in the same month issue #97 came out (cover date September 1980) he also had his own title at issue #251 plus his own annual #9 plus an appearance in Marvel Two-in-One annual #5 plus he was a cover feature in that month's Defenders #87 plus he had a reprint title Marvel Super-Heroes #91 plus the Fantastic Four reprint title Marvel's Greatest Comics #92 carried a Hulk/Thing clash plus he and Spider-Man shared Marvel Treasury Edition #27 containing reprints. The Marvel Team-Up annual came out two months later and things were a little better - "just" the Hulk's own title #253 plus Defenders #89 plus reprints in Marvel Super-Heroes #93. Now it's true Spider-Man already had a lot of titles, with Spidey Super Stories and reprints in Marvel Tales expanding his number of appearances on the newsstands, but that wasn't necessarily the best path to follow.

Curiously both the issues with the Hulk as first named hero actually feel more like part of the second heroes' series with far more emphasis on their set-ups and supporting casts than the Hulk's. The Spider-Woman issue falls during her bounty hunter era when Michael Fleisher was writing the regular title and sees her chasing criminal smugglers in the American south west with the Hulk intervening in battle with a mad scientist. It doesn't add a great deal to either character and it's a pity that Spider-Woman's sole appearance in Marvel Team-Up should be in an issue without Spider-Man as their encounters in her own title didn't really allow for a good old fashioned working together. Annual #3 is similarly dominated, this time by Power Man & Iron Fist as the Heroes for Hire are engaged to transport and guard a package which the Hulk is tricked into stealing. To add to the numbers we also get an appearance by Machine Man, who in his other identity of Aaron Stack is part of a team from the package manufacturer's insurance company. Fortunately the greater space in the annual allows space for all the elements to breathe. There's even a tiny cameo by Spider-Man who swings by Power Man and Iron Fist as they wrap up a previous assignment, but realises they've handled it on their own. The Hulk also co-stars with Spider-Man in Annual #2 where he's recruited by a Russian agent to prevent the creation of an anti-matter bomb that could wipe out the United States and trigger a destructive world war. All these appearances give the Hulk exposure but also expose just how limited his character can be. Bruce Banner is wandering across the United States, transforming into the "savage Hulk" when stressed, and reverting when calmed down by one means or another, but there's no great meat to the character. When he's portrayed as a rampaging dumb brute he's at his least interesting and the main interest in stories is either how Banner will take pre-emptive action against him or else how those around the Hulk react. If handled well then a succession of regular slots in Marvel Team-Up would work for a time in showing how other heroes work with and against the Hulk's rampaging brute form, but after a time it would have eventually tired and I'm amazed the Hulk's own title lasted as long as it did before other personas were brought to the fore.

As for the more regular star of the book, the Spider-Man stories can be broadly split between the two regular writers. The end of Claremont's run includes two multi-part epics that draw in lots of characters and put some of them through the wringer. Grant's run is primarily made up of single issue stories though he does connect the Werewolf & Shroud issues (#93-94) and then set the Mockingbird issue (#95) almost straight after them. Claremont's work shows some advances from his earlier issues, and in particular there are no further references to Gwen Stacey, which had always felt rather forced in his earlier issues after some five years of Spider-Man not constantly being reminded of her all the time. We also get another rare supporting case member who débuts within the pages of Marvel Team-Up, although she has often been forgotten since.

As noted when I previously wrote about issues #80 & #81, this run sees yet another woman in Peter's life in the form of Cissy Ironwood. Additionally there are strong hints during the four parter with the Black Widow that suggest that her temporary alter ego of "Nancy Rushman" could get something going with Spider-Man. Considering that this era of Spider-Man (corresponding to Amazing #187-209, i.e. mainly Marv Wolfman's run, and Spectacular #25-#47, i.e. mainly Bill Mantlo's first) is already awash with women, containing the final break-up with Mary Jane Watson, the brief affair with Betty Leeds, the introductions of Marcy Kane, the Black Cat, Debra Whitman and April Maye (although not all these made it very far), plus a rather close encounter with Dazzler all within the other two titles, then either Peter is more of a ladies' man than at any other point in his history or else we have the consequences of poor communication between writers. I suspect part of the problem may be down to Chris Claremont having structured his stories around Peter having a regular girlfriend - most of Cissy's appearances involve things actually happening on or after dates between her and Peter - and then finding there was none to fill the role. Annual #2 is focused on her father's background in building destructive weapons, but very little more is revealed about Cissy herself. The relationship between her and Peter is quite close, as shown most notably by his reaction when she's attacked by the werewolf Doctor Strange, but also very fast as seen from comments about how they've only recently started dating. Given her father's work in multiple field of physics, is her attraction to Peter due to his vague resemblance? Quite a few women are drawn to men who resemble their fathers. After her father's death in the annual, Cissy disappears and I'm struggling to remember if she was even mentioned again outside of the odd back-up feature in later annuals that name checked the various women in Peter's life. It's very hard to assess the relationship because we don't get to see the build-up to when they started dating - the only hints given are a comment Cissy makes about how her friend was wrong about Peter and another where she says Peter asked her out - or for that matter the detail of any split. Nor is it clear just where precisely these issues fit into the overall chronology of Peter's life, a particular problem given just how crowded this period is, so we have no idea if he was on a direct rebound from Mary Jane or Betty or if instead he had been single for a while or if he was in what we now call open relationships or what. It's also hard to assess just how understanding she is about Peter's constant disappearing or the other baggage in his life. What we're left with are just glimpses of a relationship rather than anything substantial.

As for the adventures themselves, we get two four-part epics although the first is split in two with two other issues placed between it. The story is focused on Doctor Strange's battles first with his old enemy Silver Dagger and Marie LeVeau, with help from both Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel, and then as a consequence Strange winds up transformed into a werewolf. The second half of the story sees Spider-Man working with Strange's romantic interest and disciple Clear and his servant Wong to try to restrain and cure him, when they receive further the crucial help from Satana, the Devil's Daughter. It's a particularly intense story but it really feels like Doctor Strange's story more than anything else, with Satana brought in for the concluding part to give closure (in as far as any Marvel character can obtain closure) by killing her off at the end. Curiously the second part (issue #77) provides the cover that's used for the whole volume but it's not terribly representative of the story as a whole. Still it's a striking image by John Romita Junior, one of his earliest pieces of Spider-Man work, and Ms. Marvel has risen to prominence once more in recent years so it's unsurprising to see it used here.

The other epic involves the Black Widow operating under the delusion she is a school teacher called "Nancy Rushman" and pursued through New York by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Spider-Man gets involved to help her, as does subsequently Shang-Chi the Master of Kung-Fu and Nick Fury, as they uncover a plot by the Viper and the Silver Samurai to crash the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier headquarters into Congress during a speech by the President (Jimmy Carter, going on about the oil crisis in rather pronounced form to remind us all how serious it is and how the country and world must make tough choices) and wipe out the entire US government. It's a good saga that combines action, espionage and a personal element, with strong hints that "Nancy Rushman" and Spider-Man could be an item. Sadly when the Widow is fully recovered she breaks the news to Spider-Man that whilst "Nancy" and he may have had something going, she is not her and it won't be happening. The two team up again at the end of the volume to tackle the Owl, but there's no hint of mention let alone regret about what almost was.

The only other multi-part tale involves the latter part of Spider-Man's visit to Los Angles as a follow-up to his visit there in the pages of Spider-Woman. Spider-Man first teams up with the Werewolf, who is much changed from their previous encounter, to fight the latter's old foe Tatterdemalion. Spider-Man's presence attracts the attention of the mystical Dansen Macabre who hypnotises him into capturing the Shroud. Unfortunately both parts of the story fall into the tap of treating Spider-Man almost as an interloper on private feuds and don't give us the greatest sense of involvement. Upon Spider-Man's return he runs into Mockingbird, the new identity for the character previously called the Huntress (in the time since her last appearance, DC had used the name for a rather more prominent character of their own) who is fighting corruption in S.H.I.E.L.D. Once again, the tale has Spider-Man almost needlessly intruding upon other people's affairs. It's also unusual to use Marvel Team-Up as the place to launch a new identity for a character.

The rest of the volume is taken up with a variety of individual team-ups, some of which work rather better than others. The encounter with Howard the Duck is very much in the spirit of Steve Gerber's run on the character, complete with a strange villain parodying a piece of modern American society and the duck commenting on the absurdities of it all. Here the villain is "Status Quo", a campaigner who speaks out against all the latest fads and stirs up crowds to act against them, attracting massive media attention, until Howard points out that Status Quo is "An opportunist -- media hyping your way into the national consciousness for your own selfish ends!" - or in other words an example of one of the latest fads! This forces Status Quo to stand down and rethink his approach. We also get to see Howard naked (no, not *that* sort of naked) - notoriously Howard was forced into trousers and a modified design due to complaints from Disney about intellectual property infringement with Donald Duck. Getting Howard's trousers off in one way or another can sometimes be a sign of a subtle gesture against Disney. Of course now that Disney owns Marvel can the duck finally drop his trousers and revert to his original look? It's often said that Howard generally only works when written by Gerber, his late creator, but this issue is a rare sign of another writer (Alan Kupperberg) getting pretty close.

The other stories are much of a muchness, but continue to show how Spider-Man can so easily work with most heroes, whether he's familiar with them such as the Invisible Girl, or has to be persuaded by their Avengers credentials, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Being single parters with only seventeen pages apiece there isn't too much room for grand developments, but they offer some good encounters with no real stinkers. The encounter with the Beast offers some fun dialogue between the two, as well as a strong scientific story that is convincing as drawing them both in. There's the odd weaker tale such as the encounter with Wonder Man, but Marvel Team-Up has always been a series that could easily shrug off the odd weak issue and move on.

As the fourth volume in the title's history we see the series well and truly established and not really experimenting that much beyond giving the Hulk a couple of turns in the title slot. Otherwise the book had settled down into a familiar pattern but still offers plenty of diversity from the wide range of heroes who team up with Spider-Man. There may be a few times when Spidey seems a little incidental to the series or else put in a role that any hero could have performed, but as always it's made up by the chance to see him in situations that are different from the norm in his own series, with an increased emphasis on science fiction and magic. This volume is very much quintessential Marvel Team-Up and will be enjoyed by those who enjoy the basic concept of the series and dismissed by those who don't. The issues come from a period in Spider-Man's history when there were a lot of bold developments in his other two titles, so when read next to those issues it's actually an advantage to be able to switch gear and relax with these tales.

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4 - creator labels

There are a huge amount of creators in this volume, so here's a separate post to carry some the labels for them.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 3

It's time for a further look at some of the Spider-Man related issues from the original What If? series.

#15: "What If Nova had been Four Other People?", written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by John Buscema, Walt Simonson, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru and George Pérez, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

This was the same basic idea as issue #7, only this time with Marvel's then-newest star rather than it's biggest and also using different artists for each segment. However Peter Parker was the only one of the four people who was familiar to readers.

The origin of Nova is relatively easy to adapt to the What If? set-up - a dying alien transmits his power and costume by energy beam and it accidentally hits a human, giving them the Nova powers. Each story sees it hit someone else. In the first it hits Helen Taylor, an angry widow who has vowed to find the mugger who killed her husband. She launches a violent war on crime to find the mugger, killing many criminals in the process including the Kingpin. Eventually the Fantastic Four intervene and capture her, then are forced to exile her to the Negative Zone. Meanwhile a car is pulled out of the river where it has been for months, and inside is the drowned mugger. The second story is set in a world that has hitherto lacked heroes and so when the beam hits a homeless black man he doesn't immediately realise to use them. One snowy night he is given shelter at an orphanage but then a Skrull invasion force arrives and detects his power. To save the children and Earth he becomes Nova and lets himself get captured so the children can be saved. On board the Skrull flagship he attacks and destroys the ship's equipment, causing it to go nova and saving the Earth. In the final story the beam has hit a criminal who uses the centurion's spaceship as a base from which he assembles Dr Doom, the Red Skull and the Sphinx and the four steadily eliminate all of Earth's humans. However rivalries amongst the villains result in them turning on each other until the Sphinx is the only one left standing. He desires death and sets out to search every human's mind to find one with the knowledge he needs, not realising that the criminal Nova he atomised was the one.

But it's the third story that generates the strongest interest. We get an altered version of the start of Spider-Man's origin as here the spider absorbed far more radiation and so instead of gaining powers Peter succumbs to radiation poisoning. He recovers, though not before Aunt May succumbs to stereotype and has a fatal heart attack at the first sign of bad news. Peter is now unable to walk and descends into bitterness, believing himself to be cursed. He sends Betty away (in this reality she seems to have already been his girlfriend) and throws himself into science, hoping to find a cure. One night he's alone in the school lab when the beam hits him. Discovering he can walk and more, he flies off to tell Uncle Ben, only to arrive as a burglar breaks into the house. In the living room Peter Nova flies in and a bullet bounces off his skin, killing the burglar. Despite both Uncle Ben and a police officer telling him it was accidental self-defence, Peter vows never to use his powers again and walks off embittered.

With most of the alternative Novas entirely new characters it's interesting to see different takes on some traditional comic moments and show how the power could bring out the best and worst in people. Peter Parker's story may have an all too cliched approach to Aunt May's heart but otherwise shows how a complete run of bad luck and no realisation of responsibility could have made him a very different person.

#17: "What If Ghost Rider, Spider-Woman, and Captain Marvel Had Remained Villains?", written by Steven Grant and drawn by Carmine Infantino, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

Once again we get multiple takes on a single idea, told in separate chapters. The first chapter sees an alternate take on Ghost Rider whereby his adoptive father Crash Simpson survives both cancer and a record breaking motorcycle stunt, resulting in the Devil taking Johnny Blaze's soul without interruption. He accidentally causes Crash's death and then later Roxanne Simpson tracks him down, only to die in the confrontation. Finally Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan confronts Ghost Rider and exorcises him. The Spider-Woman chapter is an alternate take on her debut in Marvel Spotlight #32 where on this occasion she doesn't discover Hydra's treachery and instead kills Nick Fury. The rest of the story which is largely the story of her fleeing to Hydra's base then getting captured in a S.H.I.E.L.D. raid then escaping at her trial. He primary motivation is to find out the truth of her past and the epilogue sees her as a wanderer, searching the world with S.H.I.E.L.D. in pursuit. Frankly there's not much meat to this and it doesn't give us much insight into Spider-Woman or any other characters. The Captain Marvel story is pretty much all set-up as it presents an alternate take on Marvel's earliest adventures with his rival Yon-Rogg exposed and eventually dying, with Captain Marvel remaining as a loyal Kree commander. This one doesn't show us very much at all. This is a general problem with telling multiple stories in a single issue, especially when the unifying concept is so abstract forcing each tale to spend more time telling the story (whereas the earlier ones with someone else getting Spider-Man or Nova's powers each share an introduction). The Ghost Rider chapter is the strongest by default with the other two tales not really offering that much of an alternate take on the characters. A pity that once again Spider-Woman is lumbered with such poor material.

#19: "What If Spider-Man had Never Become a Crime Fighter?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Pat Broderick, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

Or "What If Spider-Man has stopped the Burglar who killed his uncle?" This is probably the most obvious Spider-Man What If?, with its closest contender coming in issue #24 (reprinted in the next volume). Here Spider-Man heeds the call for help and catches the burglar - but not out of altruistic responsibility. No he's spotted the potential for some good publicity. As a result his public standing soars and Peter becomes ever more swollen headed. He reveals his identity to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but this leads to an argument about his pursuit of entertainment over science and he deserts them. He guest hosts the Johnny Carson show (now what would be the equivalent of that role in the UK?), stars in a blockbuster movie and then becomes a film producer, signing up many other heroes with the offer of favourable publicity. Meanwhile J. Jonah Jameson's world starts crashing around him. His son dies when his space capsule crashes, and Jonah becomes ever more embittered about the attention celebrity "heroes" get compared to what he sees as "real heroes" - policemen, firemen, astronauts and the like. This leads to him taking on Spider-Man by getting Ned Leeds to work out his identity. In retaliation Spider-Man shows up in Jonah's office with several gun toting men, but turns the tables by pretending to be a stunt to give Jonah an award for journalism. When the Daily Bugle attacks Spider-Man for signing the vigilante Daredevil, Spidey retaliates by discovering and exposing the Bugle's crime reporter Frederic Foswell as the crimelord the Big Man. Here the resultant negative publicity results in Jonah being asked by his board to take a step back from running the paper and he instead resigns. Having lost everything he succumbs to temptation when the jailed Foswell asks him to be his outside man to run the mobs in exchange for using the organisation for revenge on Spider-Man. An initial attempt to have Kraven the Hunter scratch Peter with poison claws fails due to the intervention of Daredevil. Then Peter and Daredevil meet with their writers - only to discover it's a trap and the writers are really several super-villains in disguise. Daredevil dies in battle and Peter realises he must use his powers for real, overpowering the remain foes. He pulls off the ringleader's hood to discover an insane Jonah, ranting about how his life has been destroyed and how Spider-Man is a villain. A remorseful Peter realises how his failure to use his powers for good has caused all this.

Pretty much everyone is in character and this is a particularly good character study of Jonah that really digs into just why he harbours such hatred of Spider-Man and other superheroes. It's a far cry from the caricature he sometimes descends to. As for Spider-Man himself, we have a good continuation of the swell-headed teenager from Amazing Fantasy #15 but also an insight into his imagination. It's quite possible he may have performed some good, particularly by signing the X-Men to give mutants good publicity, just as many real world actors and producers have helped good causes. But his arrogance and selfishness brings destruction in its wake - and he's not always the worst to suffer for it.

The other tales in the third volume are:
  • #14: "What If Sgt. Fury Had Fought World War Two In Outer Space?"
  • #18: "What If Dr. Strange Were a Disciple of Dormammu?"
  • #20: "What If the Avengers Fought the Kree-Skrull War Without Rick Jones?"

Issue #14 was one of the more outrageous concepts yet seen, but as the cover acknowledged it was riding a wave at the time launched by Star Wars.

You will have noticed that two issues are missing. These are:
  • #13: "What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?"
  • #16: "What If Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu Fought on the Side of Fu Manchu?"

Marvel no longer holds the rights to either Conan or Fu Manchu and so can't reprint their appearances. Shang-Chi is a Marvel originated character but with a setting a supporting cast drawn from the Fu Manchu stories it's only possible to reprint some of his appearances.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Essential Silver Surfer volume 1

Essential Silver Surfer volume 1 contains the Silver Surfer stories from all eighteen issues of the Surfer's original series and, as a bonus, a solo Surfer story from Fantastic Four Annual #5 which was a forerunner to the series. However the volume doesn't contain the Watcher back-up stories from the first seven issues. Everything is written by Stan Lee. The first seventeen issues are drawn by John Buscema, with both the final one and the Annual story being drawn by Jack Kirby.

(I'll say it upfront that the absence of the Watcher stories doesn't seem to detract. As far as I can tell they were all science-fiction stories, including possibly some reprints, from inventory with the Watcher just added as a narrator.)

1968 was a big year for Marvel. For the previous decade the company had been restrained due to the collapse of its distributor, forcing them into a deal with Independent News, owned by DC Comics, that limited the number of titles the company could publish each month to eight (and further limited the number they could do in each genre - for example they could only do one Western book a month). Some imaginative work was done to work around this such as bimonthly books and a look at the total Marvel input in the 1960s suggests they either managed to increase their allowance or else they were breaking the terms and getting away with it. But it also acted as a restraint on titles and one result was that many heroes had to share anthology titles - for instance Iron Man with Captain America in Tales of Suspense, the Human Torch and later Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Doctor Strange in Strange Tales, or Ant-Man/Giant Man and later Namor the Sub-Mariner with the Incredible Hulk in Tales to Astonish. Then in 1968 Marvel managed to renegotiate its distribution agreement with Independent News to remove the title limits, and the following year it switched to a different distributor altogether. This change meant that Marvel could now increase the number of titles on the stands and give many more heroes their own series. As well as splitting each of the anthology books into separate titles headlined by the heroes, a few other series were launched from scratch. One of them was the Silver Surfer.

When I first started collecting comics, the second Silver Surfer series (volume 3 - don't ask) was one of the first series I collected solidly. Back then the Surfer's earlier series seemed a truly far off distant thing and I doubted I would ever get to read it all. But after some years I was given this Essential volume as a birthday present by my sister (Thanks dearest sibling) and it opened up a very different take on the character and his universal outlook. Whereas his later series was a cosmic action piece, this one was literally more rooted to Earth and highly philosophical.

Part of the problem is that the early issues were literally very different from their fellows. Whereas most of the other Marvel titles were at this stage 36 pages long (including covers, adverts and in-house pieces), the initial seven issues were 72 pages. The stories had twice as many pages but not twice as much story - instead more space was given over to showing off the artwork (and Buscema's artwork throughout the run is quite good) and to developing the characters and building up the situation. This is seen most obvious in issue #8 which (as confirmed by a caption at the end) was written and drawn to be the first half of a double-sized issue but wound up being cut in half when the book switched to a regular sized monthly. The Silver Surfer is barely in the 20 page issue, apart from a couple of pages where Mephisto makes a minor attack on him and a three page sequence with no relationship to the rest of the issue and which feels like it was added in precisely because of this. Otherwise, the issue is taken up with setting the scene and introducing or reintroducing the villains for the main battle in the following issue. It was decompression in a single issue, long before the word had been coined. Ironically issues #2 & #3 show signs of the reverse process as both have a second chapter beginning midway through - handy for cutting up the story for later reprints but a sign, perhaps, that originally the series was intended to be regular length with two-issue stories? This would also mean issue #1 would have been double length as a special event, one of the earliest such examples of that practice. But instead the first seven issues followed this format, coming out bimonthly at a double sized price but clearly the market couldn't sustain the format, hence the retreat to a regular sized monthly from issue #8 onwards.

But it's not just the high price or the slower stories or the excess attention to the artwork that was a problem. Fundamentally, the Silver Surfer's character just didn't work in this scenario. He spends an awful lot of the series moaning about one thing or another, but mainly about being trapped on Earth with the humans (in his fist appearance in Fantastic Four he betrayed his master Galactus to save the Earth and was confined to it as a punishment). Yes a lot of people in real life spend rather more time than they realise moaning about one thing or another, and rarely notice how much it gets on other people's nerves, but it's not an attractive character trait. It's also unclear why the Surfer doesn't try to do much to resolve his situation, when surely the most logical solution would be to approach the Fantastic Four and as for their help either in penetrating the barrier or at least in getting a better relationship with the human authorities and media so that he doesn't spend so much time retreating from hostile humans at whatever level.

The first issue carries the Surfer's origin, something that had been ignored in his previous appearances in Fantastic Four. The story is now so well known but it must have been a real surprise at the time as readers learnt of how the Surfer was Norrin Radd, a man dissatisfied with the ease of life in the utopia of Zenn-La and who craved adventure. Then when Galactus came to consume the world, Radd made a deal to become Galactus's herald in exchange for Zenn-La being spared, finding new worlds for Galactus in time to prevent lives being lost. Radd gave up his world and his woman Shalla-Bal, for all this. It's the stuff of legends but several questions arise. There's no real indication of just how long ago all this was and the impression given in the first issue is that the Surfer has served Galactus for many years if not centuries. However, from the second issue onwards we see that Shalla-Bal is still alive, hasn't aged at all and is still pining for him. It's also unclear if the Surfer had led Galactus to any other inhabited worlds in their time together before reaching Earth. Although not covered in this retelling, the original story saw the Surfer's compassion awakened by his encounter with the humans so might there be other worlds whose inhabitants were not so fortunate? As punishment for his betraying his master, the Surfer has been imprisoned on the second world he saved, but why didn't Galactus nullify the rest of the agreement and take action against the first? Every time we see Zenn-La in this series, all the signs are that it has rebuilt after Galactus's original visit and life is the same as ever. (Later on, writers would address many of the points raised but not at this stage.)

The hierarchy of power in the Marvel Universe hadn't been worked out at this stage and so it was less surprising then than now to see various beings with the power to either open Galactus's barrier or bypass it. Loki is able to get the Surfer to Asgard in one issue whilst in another Mephisto is able to open it completely. The Surfer also tries other methods to escape. In issue #5, he teams up with physicist Al Harper to develop a device to disguise his molecular field. However, the escape attempt is abandoned when the Stranger comes to wipe out life on Earth and Harper gives his life to destroy the Stranger's bomb. But it's not explicitly stated at this point (and indeed wouldn't be until issue #1 of volume 3 in 1987) that the device hadn't been refined by Harper, and so readers are left wondering why the Surfer wasn't able to escape from Earth then. Issue #6 is worse as the Surfer experiments with time travel (by flying faster than the speed of light) and discovers that in the future the barrier is no longer present. But after defeating the menace in the future (by the all too easy get-out in time travel stories - travel back in time and nip the disaster in the bud; in this case stopping the accident that led to the Overlord's mutated birth) there is absolutely no explanation whatsoever as to why the Surfer simply doesn't return to the present away from Earth.

The series puts the Surfer through a variety of situations, with a variety of existing Marvel characters popping up, most notably from issue #14 onwards when there's a guest star every month - first Spider-Man, then the Human Torch, then for two months Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D., and then finally the Inhumans. Issue #4 also features a clash with Thor (which was Sal Buscema's first published comics work when he inked his brother's pencils) that also contains the Warriors Three, Sif and other Asgardians. Several familiar Marvel villains pop up such as Loki, the Stranger, the Abomination and Maximus, whilst the Fantastic Four annual story sees the Surfer battle Quasimodo, a being created by the Mad Thinker. But there are also a number of new villains introduced. There are the Badoon, yet another alien race invading Earth, the Ghost of the Flying Dutchman and the Doomsday Man, an indestructible robot created by the US Army that has got out of control. And one other but I'll discuss him in a moment. Amongst those who haven't returned are the Overlord, the mutant warlord ruler of the future universe, Baron Ludwig von Frankenstein, a descendent of the scientist from literature, Yarro Gort, a rival for the hand of Shalla-Bal, the General, the unnamed military dictator of a Latin American country (oh how original!) invading its neighbour and Warlock Prime, a British aristocrat who heads a coven. Notably some stories don't have any villain at all but rather basic misunderstandings, particularly the encounters with Spider-Man and the Human Torch.

But by far the most regular and famous of the Surfer's foes introduced here is Mephisto. I am amazed that Marvel would be so bold as to introduce a foe that is all but named as the Devil. Yes I know that later on Marvel backtracked on that with several other characters who could also have fitted that role and eventually established them as being not the actual Devil, but at this stage there is no such evasion and he's acknowledging other names such as Beelzebub and Lucifer. Mephisto appears in five of the eighteen issues which may seem excessive at first, but considering two of those issues were originally going to be a single double-sized one then it doesn't seem so bad. On all three occasions he is trying to secure the Surfer's soul through various methods, including twice bringing Shalla-Bal to Earth whilst his other attempt involves taking another lost soul and turning it into a powerful agent to force the Surfer's hand. The problem is there isn't a great deal of diversity in the foe's methods and nor is he at this stage seen undertaking other schemes that could broaden him out. So we get a foe to spark and terrify the imagination on the first encounter but beyond that he's doesn't seem to be terribly durable as a regular menace.

There's another potential menace in the offing when the series ends on a cliffhanger (although due to the placing in the volume, in at least the original edition, it's followed here by the Fantastic Four annual story) with the Surfer tired of all the hatred he has faced and the failure of his attempts at reason, and so he angrily declares that he won't hold back any more but instead:
"Let mankind beware! From this time forth -- the Surfer will be the deadliest one of all!"
It's a powerful moment but an unfortunate point on which to end the series. And for nearly thirty years it was never resolved - when the Surfer next appeared in the try-out issues for what became the Defenders, he was back to normal. The later volume 3 ran for eleven and a half years but never felt the need to address this either - indeed I seem to recall a letters page brushing it off as the Surfer having a brief angry moment. It was only in the late 1990s, not long after this Essential volume was first published, that a resolution was given in Web-Spinners: Tales of Spider-Man #4-6.

Ultimately the main problem with the series is that the Surfer's character as presented here just isn't that likeable. There's too much moping about rather than either trying more methods to escape his prison or else finding ways to adapt to life on the planet. With no recurring supporting cast beyond Shalla-Bal, the Surfer carries the series on his own and so we get a very one-sided approach to life. But ultimately it's the Surfer's reflections on life on Earth that defined the series. Far too often he ends up in confrontations and fights due to the fear and/or hatred of humans, and when read in one volume it all gets very repetitive. The artwork is great, and somewhat justifies the larger panels and makes up for the slower paced stories, but the plots and dialogue needed to be more positive and give the Surfer some breaks. And they really needed to explain better just why his two major attempts to escape the barrier failed. There's a lot to like about the character and he can work well either as a guest star or a team member, but when presented on his own he needs to be much more positive. And yes, the "Sentinel of the Spaceways!" (as he's called on the cover of the first two issues) or "Sky-Rider of the Spaceways!" (as he is on all the rest bar the final issue) should be allowed out into the spaceways to truly soar and explore. There are some good ideas and good pictures here, but the series as a whole just meanders along without much development to overcome the early weaknesses. All in all it was a lost opportunity.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Essential Doctor Strange volume 1

We come now to the other great creation of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Doctor Strange. (Unfortunately there's never been a great deal of consistency over whether it's "Doctor" or "Dr." so I'm taking my cue from the volume's cover.)

Essential Doctor Strange volume 1 contains the Doctor Strange strips from Strange Tales #110, #111 & #114-168 - i.e. the full run before he received his own title for the first time. As previously discussed, Strange Tales was one of Marvel's anthology series and the good doctor shared the title first with the Human Torch’s solo tales and then with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The artwork on this volume is by Ditko all the way until issue #146 then Bill Everett, Marie Severin, Dan Adkins and George Tuska. The writing is initially by Lee with Ditko co-plotting, officially credited as such from issue #135 onwards, then the remaining strips are scripted or fully written by the likes of Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, Raymond Marais and Jim Lawrence. It's worth noting that Ditko's last four issues are not scripted by Lee.

In so far as there is a paper trail, the written evidence suggests that the idea for Doctor Strange was first thought up by Steve Ditko and only then fleshed out in collaboration with Stan Lee. There hasn't been as much debate over the character's creation as there has been with other characters, and I suspect Marvel hasn't given the issue as much time as Spider-Man's. (For example in the introduction to one collection they reproduced a contemporary letter from Lee to a fan in which Lee stated the magician was Ditko's idea. This reproduction probably did not go through endless corporate discussion.) It's interesting to note that Lee's (or Marvel corporate's?) stated definition of who the "creator" is excludes him on this occasion. Perhaps this is a sign of how it's the visuals rather than the script which gives the strip its greatest lure. A far cry from the hard edged urban grittiness of Spider-Man, Ditko's work on Doctor Strange is truly a voyage into the fantastic.

Unfortunately black and white can have its disadvantages and they are prominent here. Doctor Strange was one of the most psychedelic of strips put out by Marvel in the 1960s but some of that effect came from the colours and when viewed in black and white it seems more subdued. Never the less the exotic is still there, seen most graphically with the design of Eternity, whose body almost entirely consists of a starscape, perhaps the ultimate in psychedelia. On its original run the strip acquired a cult following amongst university students who wondered just what Steve Ditko was on. I doubt they ever guessed it was the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Nor do I think they spotted Ditko's attitude to hippies and student protesters, as expressed in his final issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

In all the speculation and discussion about Ditko's departure from Marvel, his work on Doctor Strange often gets overlooked. Perhaps it's because the magician has never achieved the levels of popularity that the wallcrawler has (although he's quite popular amongst creators). Perhaps it's because the departure came immediately after grand developments instead of just before them, and thus there's no creative decision to speculate on. Perhaps it's because Stan Lee was already off the strip, and it's harder to focus on his replacements. (Roy Thomas and Denny O'Neill may have both gone on to do great things, but in 1966 they were each starting out and not yet in great positions of authority. And when Ditko went, Lee immediately returned for the initial issues.) But whatever the reason, the result is that a key part of the puzzle is ignored. The strip climaxes with issue #146, entitled "The End -- At Last!", concluding the seventeen issue "Eternity saga" (although the "Dormammu saga" would be a more accurate description) and wrapping up many threads. It's a suitable ending for a long journey.

But every journey has a beginning, even if it's full of slips and omissions. Unfortunately the earliest Doctor Strange tales leave two matters out, both of which can affect subsequent stories. No origin is given for the good doctor until his fourth appearance in issue #115, in spite of several earlier stories involving the Ancient One and/or Baron Mordo. This omission is all the more surprising given that nearly every other Silver Age Marvel hero began with their origin being retold - was Doctor Strange originally intended to be a one-off feature? However whilst the origin omission is soon rectified, the other is left dangling and we never get a very clear sense of the full extent of Doctor Strange's powers, with the result that at times his escape from or triumph over his foes can seem all too easy. Without knowing his full limits, we are limited to statements that foes such as Dormammu and Umar are far more powerful than him, but it's not always clear why he can easily triumph over some foes yet others take far more skill.

As is often the case, this volume introduces quite a number of foes who would plague Doctor Strange again over the years. Given the importance of the artist, I'm going to split the list of débuts in two. In the Ditko issues we get the first appearances of, variously, Nightmare, Baron Mordo, Aggamon, the House of Shadows, Zota, Dormammu, Demonicus, Tiboro, Kaecilius and Shazana. There are also the Possessors, the strip's version of the alien race invading Earth that just about all Silver Age Marvel heroes faced. There is at least an attempt to make them relevant to Doctor Strange's series by having them come from another dimension and giving them the power to possess people. Visitors form other series are rare, but Loki from Thor's strip in Journey Into Mystery does show up. Just as standard are the various allies and other supporting cast members who début, and Ditko's issues introduce us to the Ancient One, Wong, Victoria Bentley, Clea (although she's not named for twenty issues), Hamir (the Ancient One's servant), Orini and the Aged Genghis. And standing above everything is the mysterious Eternity. The post-Ditko issues introduce yet more villains who would appear again, including Kaluu, Umar and Yandroth. There's also the one-off foe Nebulos, who I'm surprised nobody has yet brought back. Not that he's a particularly memorable foe but so many others have returned. Otherwise the only other significant débuts are two more powerful beings that defy easy description, Zom and the Living Tribunal.

These are reasonably impressive lists but they disguise the over-use of Baron Mordo in these issues, with Nightmare also popping up quite a bit before Dormammu becomes established as the other great foe. After Dormammu is seemingly destroyed, it's not long before a replacement is found in the form of his sister Umar. What lists also hide is the relatively weak use of the supporting cast. The Ancient One turns up a number of times to provide guidance and extra power, but otherwise most of the characters appear only occasionally and are weakly developed. Clea is initially presented as a potential romantic interest, but she and Doctor Strange are repeatedly kept apart, until the point where the Ancient One effectively banishes her for her own protection. Towards the end of the volume Victoria Bentley is dusted off to play the role of damsel in distress, but despite having some magic powers she's given little to do beyond being captured and rescued. There are also few attempts to give Doctor Strange many day to day problems, even though on more than one occasion we hear of problems with both money and the stability of his house, but in a later issue the money problems are literally magicked away when Doctor Strange produces the money necessary. Nor do we ever meet anyone from Strange's former life as an arrogant surgeon, or even get much exploration of how his character has changed beyond the origin story. This strip is a far cry from the soap operas being developed elsewhere at Marvel at the time, and is much more a fantasy piece with the art front and centre.

That's not to say the writing is inherently bad, and indeed the dialogue is often good, particularly the many spells Doctor Strange comes up with. But it really is the art that stands out. On the basis of these stories alone there is only one definitive Doctor Strange artist - Steve Ditko. None of his replacements succeeds in offering a boldly different style to get successive generations of fans debating, the way that Spider-Man fans do over Ditko and John Romita. And also in contrast to Spider-Man, there is a real sense of conclusion with Ditko's final issue. Many of the plotlines are resolved in the space of ten pages, the villain meets his comeuppance, the girl is freed and the hero walks away to rest. This is a very clear conclusion to the story and strongly suggests Ditko had reached the end of all he wished to do with the character. Whether this was indeed the case or not, I'm not sure, as there are reports that he had prepared two further issues when he left Marvel. But nevertheless it does provide a strong sense of closure.

(Yet from a modern perspective it's surprising to see the way Eternity is treated, with many believing him destroyed in battle with Dormammu, and for that matter the same surprise comes later with the Living Tribunal when each is here treated merely as a very powerful, mysterious being and not as one of the most powerful entities of all in the multiverse. It would take many years before Marvel took steps to arrange its many powerful cosmic beings into a coherent hierarchy, with the Living Tribunal invariably the single most powerful being shown, and Eternity the embodiment of the universe. Here they're just very powerful entities but without a hint as to their place in the greater scheme of things.)

After Ditko's departure the strip meanders somewhat, trying to maintain the sense of grandeur and excitement but a succession of writers and repetitive ideas mean that it doesn't quite succeed. What we get is a succession of mini-epics that are generally good in their own right (bar the last one with Yandroth that tries to combine science and the realm of dreams, not to very great success) but just don't compare at all well to the earlier majesty. Still they keep some pace going and do add a bit to Doctor Strange's world.

As can be seen, this is very much a volume of two halves and it seems clear from comparisons with the issues they didn't collaborate on that Steve Ditko rather than Stan Lee was the key driving force in the first few years. As a result the strip is driven more by the visuals over the writing than is usually the case. The writing may have its occasional repetition and omission, but combined with the art there's a great deal of imagination that produces a truly spectacular experience. Black and white may remove some of the psychedelic nature of the strip but the various spells and realms remain extraordinary, and a far cry from the rest of the comics world of its generation. Ditko's successors may not be as good, but they all try to follow the same path. The only possible additional strip I would have included is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (otherwise available in Essential Spider-Man volume 2), which teamed up the wallcrawler with Doctor Strange with the latter really dominating proceedings in another tale drawn by Ditko. But when this volume was first released it was already the single longest Essential at the time (and only about a dozen since have been any longer), and back then it wasn't standard to include guest appearances as well. Otherwise this volume is a near perfect collection with the complete Ditko run the true jewel and the remaining issues a bonus.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Essential Ant-Man volume 1

1962 saw Marvel launch more than one hero based on an arthropod (arachnids are technically not insects). But whilst one soared to great fame, the other wandered along, went through multiple identities and ultimately has remained a minor player in the Marvel Universe. That hero was Ant-Man.

If you ever find yourself on QI and are asked "Which was the second Marvel superhero strip of the Silver Age?" think very, very carefully before risking an answer.

(For those unfamiliar with it, QI is a British television comedy quiz show devoted to obscure trivia and pedantry. Often the questions asked have a seemingly obvious answer that is in fact wrong and giving this answer sets off a klaxon and loses you points.)

"The Man in the Ant Hill!" from Tales to Astonish #27 is part of another, now obscure genre - the science fiction/fantasy and monster stories that Marvel had been telling prior to the superhero revival. It's the all too common tale of a scorned scientist seeking fame but finding his invention backfires on him, as Henry Pym's shrinking formula reduces his body in size too quickly, and he has to find a way to get to the growth formula with the complication of facing down ants. This is really part of the old genre rather than the new, although the divide between the two is far more blurred than is often assumed. There are no real signs of the traits of the superhero era that was growing - there's no costume, no real villain and no great characterisation of Pym beyond being a stock fame-seeking scientist. It wasn't until issue #35 in September 1962 that he became a regular feature and a costumed hero. So his claim to be the second hero feature after the Fantastic Four is contentious (as are some of the other claimants' but let's not go into those now).

As for Tales to Astonish itself, this was another of the various Marvel anthology series that morphed into a superhero title and is best known for carrying the Incredible Hulk from issue #60 onwards, eventually transforming into the Hulk's own title. The later issues would also carry Namor the Sub-Mariner, who took over Ant-Man's slot. We'll look to see why a vacancy opened. Essential Ant-Man volume 1 carries the Ant-Man/Giant-Man strips from Tales to Astonish #27 & #35-69, including the various back-up strips featuring the Wasp either solo or telling a story. All but a couple of the issues are plotted by Stan Lee who also scripts many, with others scripted by Larry Lieber or H.E. Huntley. The other two issues are written by Leon Lazarus and Al Hartley. The art sees runs by the likes of Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Carl Burgos and Bob Powell, with Steve Ditko contributing one issue and Larry Lieber drawing all the Wasp features, which he also scripts over Stan Lee plots.

The publication of this volume was a landmark back in 2002. Up until this point the Essential series had only focused on the biggest name heroes and teams and the idea of an Essential Ant-Man was largely just idle speculation on Usenet. But Marvel took the plunge in bringing one of its more obscure heroes' series back into print and the success of the volume has led to many other Marvel series being rescued from the depths of obscurity and brought back into print, including the Human Torch in Strange Tales, The Man called Nova, Ms. Marvel, Dazzler, Godzilla and many more.

But the volumes has also revealed just why these adventures are so forgotten. Frankly this is a series that's never quite sure why it's there, which does little to develop the world around the hero and which sees motivations, costumes, powers and identities regularly changed. And few of these changes feel like natural developments but rather sudden alterations made in individual stories. The result is that the series never gets a clear identity for itself. Perhaps that’s appropriate given Hank Pym's subsequent career with yet more identities to the point that he’s never really been clearly identified with a single one.

On the face of it a man who can shrink to a tiny size and communicate with ants sounds plainly silly. But aren't some of the other Marvel heroes equally silly? A blind man with enhanced senses becoming an all action crime fighter is patently absurd. So's a teenager getting the powers of a spider. Or another teenager who can turn into living flame. Or a man who can stretch his body in all manner of ways. But we've already made those leaps of faith and it's how the concepts are handled that has determined whether or not such characters have durability. One could easily nit-pick the shortcomings in Ant-Man's powers or question some of the leaps of logic (such as how exactly does a man move around so quickly either flying on the back of an ant or by catapult?) but such silliness is part and parcel of the era and a good writer in a later generation could doubtlessly easily come up with explanations for some of that if it was deemed necessary.

The real problem stems from the limited scope and development in the series. Apart from the Wasp the only recurring supporting cast that I can spot is a US government agent who appears twice. Otherwise we're limited to just Hank Pym and, from issue #44 onwards, Janet van Dyne. And Hank's motivations for why he does what he does change a bit without clear explanation. In the initial story he's just a fame seeing scientist whose invention gets out of control and he destroys it. But then he becomes an ongoing series and suddenly his serum is back with no explanation for why he brought it back. Nor is it clear why he's switched from using it as a way to cut down storage and travel to becoming a crime fighter. Nor is it clear why a biochemist is suddenly able to discover the means by which ants communicate and devise artificial means to enter that conversation.

A change of tack comes in issue #44 when we suddenly learn a whole new element of Hank's backstory. Now we discover that he once married a Hungarian woman called Maria who had fled communism but choose to visit the country on their honeymoon, where she was recognised, kidnapped and executed. And so the widowed Hank was motivated into fighting crime back home. Some of that just doesn't add up, and after being introduced in this issue the whole point is then ignored for the rest of the series save one issue when he goes on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. And there's also the uncomfortable point that Janet looks very much like a younger Maria, a point explicitly remarked upon at the time. And this was nearly two decades before a similar plot point was used in X-Men.

With the introduction of the Wasp the series takes a shift but in no way is this a partnership of equals. The Wasp may be brave and resourceful in battle, but all too often she is otherwise presented as a silly, flighty girl who spends her time wishing Hank would be more romantic or worrying about clothes and the like. Between issues #51 & #58 she gets her own back-up feature but in nearly all of these stories she is just narrating various science fiction stories to either orphans or veterans. The early 1960s were not yet a time for enlightened women, but even compared to Marvel Girl over in the X-Men the Wasp is not the most advanced character of her era. And Hank's attitude to her may not be overtly sexist but he frequently doubts her word and makes comments that border on misogynistic. And there's a late development when Hank devises the means to change size merely by thinking commands into his headgear - and he also adds the ability to make Janet shrink down without having to do anything herself! I don't know how many young girls were reading Tales to Astonish at the time (or many women have picked up this volume) but I doubt many dreamed of growing up to be the Wasp.

Throughout the run there's a succession of changes in the way that Hank operates his shape-changing powers. At first he pours a serum on himself but later he switches to a gas, then later to pills and finally to some undefined method of incorporating the size-changing into both his and Janet's bodies and activating it by cybernetic enhanced thought. There are several times where the method of the day fails, either because Hank gets cut off from what he needs to change size or because a foe makes use of them instead, but it rarely directly leads to him looking for a new method that will prevent such repetition.

Issue #49 sees the big change when Hank now starts growing and takes on the identity of Giant-Man. (Very rarely is the "Gi-Ant Man" pun actually exercised within these pages.) Yet it's here that his identity problems begin. He retains his power to shrink and for some strange reason he continues to use the moniker "Ant-Man" when he shrinks down, despite the difference between Ant-Man and Giant-Man being merely one of size. There's no attempt to pretend that the two are in any way separate individuals so one has to wonder why he uses the two separate names instead of finding one that can cover multiple sizes. The problem is resolved in issue #68 when it's revealed that his encounter with the Hidden Man's sill absorbing rays in the previous issue has robbed him of the ability to shrink down to Ant-Man (a point that makes no sense as Hank can still shrink to human size, albeit with more difficulty now) but up to this point it has left the hero with an inconsistent confusing identity. The final issues also see Hank settling down into a single size for his Giant-Man form but it's another change to add to the mess. And the structure of the stories isn't one of a long, ongoing journey of development so this doesn't feel like a natural turning point but just one more change in a long line of them.

The stories are also inconsistent on some basic details. For example exactly what communication is received from the ants - is it just normal words or just pictures? Are Ant-Man/Giant-Man and the Wasp's identities meant to be secret or not? Several stories use them as a plot point but in others both are pretty free about taking off their helmets and masks, and Hank is not exactly hiding his connections to the giant hero. He is also quite easy to contact in an emergency, especially when various foes strike.

Quite a number of the villains introduced in these stories have made appearances elsewhere, including Comrade X, Egghead, the Scarlet Beetle, the Hijacker, the Voice (although here he's mainly identified by his real name, Jason Cragg), the Chiltarians, the Porcupine, the Living Eraser, Supremacy, the Human Top (who later underwent a name change to something less hilarious), El Toro and the Beasts of Berlin. We also get the Black Knight, a modern day descendent of a hero from the 1950s "Marvel" (I forget what they were called at each precise stage). However without checking every single subsequent appearance in databases, I'm not sure how many of the "returns" are in fact reprints or flashbacks or other features reliving these adventures. And I suspect if they have shown up in further issues, they've been selected precisely for their ultra obscurity. The villains who appear to have never been seen since include various generic Communists, the Protector (who is running, surprise, surprise, a protection racket), Kulla the ruler of an alien dimension (who, amazingly for an alien in an early Silver Age Marvel, isn't trying to conquer the Earth - but then this is Tales to Astonish), the Time Master, the Kosmosians, Trago, the Magician, Colossus (no relation to the X-Men member), Second-Story Sammy, the Wrecker (no relation to the Thor villain), Madame Macabre and the Hidden Man. Villains from other series are strictly limited to Attuma and hordes of Atlanteans, from the pages of Fantastic Four. So really there are only three villains of any lasting note in this volume - Egghead (a name that back then was the equivalent of "nerd" or "geek"), who is still very much Hank Pym's enemy whatever title he's in, the Human Top who is better known as Whirlwind, and the second Black Knight who didn't last long anyway before being replaced by his nephew as a hero, and in any case was a revamp of a 1950s character. Consequently, the most significant villain to exclusively come out of the pages of these issues is none other than Whirlwind. That says a lot about why these stories are so often overlooked.

As for the stories themselves, they are frankly not at the cutting edge of early Silver Age Marvel. Rather they feel very generic. The artwork is generally okay but suffers from a turnover of pencillers and even though several of them are amongst the biggest Marvel names of the early 1960s such as Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers or Don Heck, few seem to be giving their best. The writing is also rather pedestrian - other than his relationship with his partner the hero experiences no present day problems outside of his adventuring. There's no supporting cast to interact with. Some of the villains are hooded but usually only one suspect is presented - this is especially true of the Protector. Few present any real lasting threat. Nor does the hero face any problems with public adulation, beyond getting irritated by visits from his fan club. This series is very much a conventional superhero feature from a company that was elsewhere doing a lot to beak down the pre-existing conventions.

There are, however, a few signs of the Marvel changes breaking through in the later issues. We get a couple of stories with big name guest-stars, including a battle with Spider-Man that is probably the volume's best known tale, and a fight with the Hulk that set up the latter's transfer to Tales to Astonish. That was the first sign of Giant Man's popularity starting to collapse. Up until issue #59 his page count had steadily grown, even if some of the pages were devoted to the Wasp's stories (which aren't terribly memorable - in most the protagonist finds their cunning backfires on them), culminating in issue #59 containing an eighteen page story plus a five page feature reminding us of our heroes' powers. But then the Hulk took up residence in half the book from issue #60 onwards, forcing the Giant-Man feature to shrink to fourteen pages, then twelve, until finally issue #69 ends on an ambiguous note as Hank worries about the danger he has put Janet in, and she wonders if he's about to retire. Issue #70 saw the feature replaced by Namor the Sub-Mariner.

And it's hard to get upset about the fate. The series was not the most dynamic or ground-breaking being put out even at the time and little was being done to develop the characters. Instead we have a comic pot-boiler, produced by many great talents passing time between more amazing assignments. The result is a series that doesn't try to push against the conventions or really develop the lead character but instead wanders through a succession of generic situations. Ant-Man may have had outrageous powers but in themselves that should have been no impediment to doing something bold with the character. The Wasp is equally not the most developed sidekick and so neither of the characters is really given a strong core for later writers to build on. Many have complained that they've found it difficult to take Hank Pym to a point where his late lashing out at the Wasp is forgotten, but it's clear from the character's roots that there wasn't a lot to the character to fall back on. This volume is very much one for completists.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Some other heroes

As another side-step, I'm going to again review some other Essential volumes. In forthcoming posts I'll be looking at a variety of series that all, in their own way, are somewhat offbeat from the superhero norm much as Spider-Man's creation was. They'll be from a variety of eras but where relevant they'll all be the first volumes from their runs. If a particular post proves especially popular I may have a look at some of the later volumes in that series' run.

So tomorrow we'll start with another 1962 hero based on a small, multi-legged creature.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 2

Another look at some of the Spider-Man issues of the original What If? series.

#7: "What If Somebody else besides Spider-Man had been bitten by the radioactive spider?", written by Don Glut and drawn by Rick Hoberg, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 2

The title to this one is a little long winded but "What If someone else was Spider-Man?" wouldn't work as none of the three people actually uses the name "Spider-Man". Instead we get first "Captain Spider" aka Flash Thompson, "The Amazing Spider-Girl" aka Betty Brant and "Spider-Jameson" aka Colonel John Jameson (Jonah's son). Unfortunately with three separate stories to tell plus the basic set-up there isn't much time to develop any of them. Flash's story sees him at first try to use his powers at wrestling but he accidentally kills Crusher Hogan and is forced to flee. He adopts the identity of Captain Spider and has a brief superhero career, but his over-confidence and lack of webs are his undoing when he fights the Vulture and falls to his death. Betty Brant also develops a friendship with Peter Parker who becomes her confident and equipment designer. She enjoys a brief career in a very revealing costume, but Betty finds her powers overwhelm her. Consequently there comes a point where she's run out of web fluid and fails to stop a thief running past. The thief goes on to kill Peter's Uncle Ben and Betty tracks him down and captures him... but upon realising she could have stopped him she realises she cannot handle the responsibility and abandons her identity. Colonel Jameson becomes the first marketed hero with his father pushing him into the role, but comes to grief when he tries to save an out of control space capsule as his jetpack fails and the capsule crushes him to death. At the unveiling of a memorial Jonah opts to dedicate himself to supporting other heroes. The epilogue shows that in all three stories Peter Parker has retrieved the dead spider and extracts the venom to create a serum to become Spider-Man. This issue came out not long after Spidey's guest appearance in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 and both issues float the idea that it is Peter's destiny to become Spider-Man. Whilst much of the point of the What If? issue is that it takes more to be Spider-Man than just being bitten by a radioactive spider and putting on a red & blue costume, and unlike the Two-In-One annual there's no reference to Lord Chaos and Master Order manipulating him, I just don't like the idea of the every-man hero being pushed into his role by destiny. Otherwise the issue as a whole has few points that stand out beyond Betty Brant's costume and the possibility that Jonah could have been a friend to superheroes under different circumstances.

#8: "What If the World Knew That Daredevil Is Blind?", written by Don Glut and drawn by Alan Kupperberg & "What If the spider had been bitten by a radioactive human?", written & drawn by Scott Shaw, both reprinted in What If? Classic volume 2

This issue contained one serious and one humorous story. In the former Spider-Man make a small guest appearance when he accidentally stumbles into Daredevil's first fight with Electro. Consequently the fight goes differently and Electro soon realises that Daredevil is blind, confirmed when Daredevil can't answer his question about the colour of his costume - and tells the world. Daredevil continues fighting crime even though his foes try everything to stop him but Karen Page soon deduces his identity and persuades Matt Murdock to undergo an eye operation. He agrees and it doesn't cost him his enhanced senses but soon afterwards he loses them anyway when shutting down an atomic pile. Matt retires his Daredevil identity but wears the costume one last time when he's kidnapped by the Owl. He defeats the Owl who perishes in an explosion and Daredevil decides that he could have saved his foe had he still had his senses. He calls a press conference where he reveals his identity (as so many were deducing it anyway), retires from superheroing altogether and runs for District Attorney. He is successfully elected and marries Karen. This is a rare What If? with a happy ending but it falls into the trap of telling too much of the story through accelerated narration and also keeping close to the events in the original series. But it's one of the truest to the idea that a simple change can have drastic repercussions.

(Oh and the continuity is potentially messed up as the issue claims Amazing Spider-Man #25 and Daredevil #2 took place simultaneously. But considering Spidey and Daredevil first met in Amazing #16 this is unlikely - but What The heck!)

The second story is a comedy piece, set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, years before the likes of Spider-Ham came on the scene, and is narrated not by the Watcher but by editor Roy Thomas standing in for him. We learn how "Webster Weaver", a nerdish teenage spider gets bitten by a human and developed enhanced powers and adopts the identity of "Man-Spider". The story follows the familiar course of his failure to stop a crook who kills his "Uncle Bug", only this time he doesn't initially track down said crook. Instead he fights crime generally until one day a mysterious foe blackmails the world with a threat to destroy the atmosphere - it's "Raze", a living can of fly-spray (and I don't know if the name is a pun on a brand that I've never encountered) and also the being who killed Uncle Bug. Man-Spider gets captured but Raze throws an explosive which accidentally blows up the spray can. Man-Spider feels better about Uncle Bug's death but now has to face Aunt Mayfly's chicken-pox soup. This is an intentionally silly piece, satirising funny animal comics, and frankly one will either adore or hate it. But it's only eight pages long. And I'm surprised to discover that people were concerned about CFCs and the Ozone Layer as early as 1977.

The other tales in the second volume are:
  • #9: "What If the Avengers Had Fought Evil During the 1950's?"
  • #10: "What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?"
  • #11: "What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become the Fantastic Four?"
  • #12: "What If Rick Jones Had Become the Hulk?"
Issue #9 is another of those stories that might have actually been set in the regular Marvel universe rather than an alternate reality, and the Watcher is non-committal on this point but it would be a few decades before anyone addressed it again. But when they did, we got to see a team made up of some of the 1950 Atlas heroes who were first put together here. Issue #11 is, I think, the last time Jack Kirby drew a Fantastic Four comic though on this occasion the cast and premise are very different from the original.
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