Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Secret Wars II - the crossovers

Given the success of the original Secret Wars series, it's not surprising that a sequel quickly followed. Having previously taken the heroes to a far off place to encounter a fantastical being, it was only natural that this time the reverse would happen and the fantastical being would come from that far off place to encounte the heroes on their home territory. And as a way to boost sales right across the line, the series would have tie-in issues in just about all the line. (Once again this is something that both Marvel and DC did at about the same time. Since DC only started adding tie-ins to Crisis on Infinite Earths midway through the run I'm guessing Marvel decided on this first.) Fortunately, unlike some later crossovers, Secret Wars II only dipped in and out of individual series, rather than the later practice of hooking an individual book into a bigger event for months on end.

Once again the series has yet to be collected in its own right in the Essentials, though issue #4 can be found in Essential Dazzler volume 2 and a handful of the crossover tie-ins can be found in various other Essential volumes. However it's had other reprintings, the two main ones at the moment being a tradepaperback carrying just the main series and a huge Marvel Omnibus edition carrying virtually the entire crossover. The full list of the crossover, in the order of the Omnibus edition, is as follows:
Omitted are:
  • Rom #72
  • Micronauts #16
This is due to Marvel having lost the rights for these two toy tie-in series.

In later years a few additional comics would serve as additional tie-ins, including:
  • Fantastic Four #316
  • Fantastic Four #317
  • Fantastic Four #318
  • Fantastic Four #319
  • Quasar #8
The Marvel Omnibus edition collects all of these as well. The inclusion of the Quasar issue is a surprise because it's actually a follow-up to the original Secret Wars series, in which the temporary enhancements to Iron Man's armour take on a life of their own. For that matter the Fantastic Four issues are part of a storyline actually called "Secret Wars III".

However the Omnibus only includes reduced versions of the first few pages of:
  • Deadpool Team Up #1
Well this issue was mocking the tendency for inconsequential tie-ins to big crossover events. Only the first few pages are set at the time and see Deadpool encountering the Beyonder; the rest is set years later.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars

By far the most popular post on this blog is the one briefly outlining Secret Wars and Secret Wars II. And it's about time to share my thoughts on the original series. As previously noted this hasn't yet been collected in the Essentials, but has had several other collections over the years. Most use a recoloured version of issue #1's cover but the 1992 tradepaperback has an original piece of art.

All of the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars twelve issue series is written by Jim Shooter. Almost all of it is drawn by Mike Zeck bar issues #4 & #5 which are drawn by Bob Layton. The project was a tie-in to support a now generally forgotten line of action figures from Mattel which was the first time the Marvel heroes had appeared in this form. Mattel requested a special comic event bringing all the key characters together to promote the line and this was the result. Shooter writing the series was a little controversial at the time because as Editor-in-Chief he had generally avoided writing actual series. Depending on what you read he made this an exception either because he felt the last-worst way to handle clashes between creative personalities was to have the already hated Editor-in-Chief handle the task of someone else writing "their" characters, or because he was aware each issue would be included in the comic bags then sold at toystores and thus attract royalty level sales. The toyline wasn't much success but the comic series was a huge seller and set a trend that would last for many years.

The cast of Secret Wars says something about importance at Marvel in the mid 1980s but I'm not entirely sure what. The heroes' ship arrives carrying:
  • Mr. Fantastic
  • The Human Torch
  • The Thing
  • Spider-Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Professor X
  • Cyclops
  • Wolverine
  • Rogue
  • Storm
  • Colossus
  • Nightcrawler
  • Lockheed
  • Captain America
  • Thor
  • Iron Man
  • The Wasp
  • Hawkeye
  • She-Hulk
  • Captain Marvel
  • Magneto
This selection was, and remains, very much the traditional big guns of the Marvel Universe. There are many obvious omissions from the next tier - Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the New Defenders (in this era a defined team based around the Beast, the Angel and Ice-Man), the Silver Surfer, Dazzler, Alpha Flight, Power Man, Iron Fist or Moon Knight. (Ghost Rider's story had ended by this point.) But instead it's limited to the biggest guns. I guess it was difficult enough juggling characters who between them had eleven regular titles without throwing in yet more.

The need to tie in with ongoing continuity resulted in several notable omissions and changes from the norm. The Hulk isn't the rampaging beast most often seen up until now, but instead has the mind of Bruce Banner (although the series coincides with him steadily losing control). The Invisible Girl was in the later stages of pregnancy and so out of action. Sprite (aka Kitty Pryde, later Shadowcat - in this era she suffered the burden of not having a clear single standard name) was planned to be in the series as late as when the artwork for the first cover was drawn (it was also used for adverts with her on it) but was reportedly dropped to allow certain plot developments with Colossus (part of an editorial struggle over her relationship with him). Cyclops was suddenly dropped back into the X-Men despite having recently withdrawn and got married. Less clear is why other active Avengers like the Vision, the Scarlet Witch and Starfox were left out. But perhaps the biggest change from the expectations of those not reading the relevant series is that Iron Man is not Tony Stark but rather his temporary replacement Jim Rhodes (later War Machine) who finds himself working alongside many of Stark's regular comrades for the first time without knowing just how much they know.

Magneto's reason for being included on the heroes' ship is a mystery not answered until the final issue, when the Enchantress consults a water spirit as a means to fill out several gaps the narrative has failed to cover. Otherwise the villains arrive on a separate ship and consist of:
  • Dr. Doom
  • Kang the Conqueror
  • Dr. Octopus
  • The Lizard
  • Ultron
  • The Absorbing Man
  • The Enchantress
  • The Wrecker
  • Bulldozer
  • Piledriver
  • Thunderball
  • The Molecule Man
  • Galactus
It's a rather shorter list making for some unequal battles, but also it's rather lopsided with nearly half the villains being from the pages of Thor. Of the Spider-Man foes, Dr. Octopus is a natural choice, though he doesn't get to do much in the story, but the Lizard is an odd choice for a collection of supposedly greatest foes. Many of Spider-Man's Rogues Gallery may not be suited for such a collection and setting, but for sheer strength how about the Scorpion and for raw power perhaps Electro could have fulfilled such a role. And there are no doubt many other foes of the various heroes who could have made for a broader line-up. Indeed the limitations were such that three extra foes were added - two new ones in the forms of Volcanna and Titania, and the return of Klaw after he was seemingly killed by Dazzler.

There's also a new hero who shows up, having been living in a part of Denver that was snatched for the patchwork of the Beyonder's world. I've written previously about how Marvel created the original Spider-Woman to shore up their intellectual property, but then were never able to get a clear direction and purpose for her, with each new writer dramatically changing things. Having finally retired off the Jessica Drew character, a new Spider-Woman was introduced here. But beyond living in Denver and having only fought a few fights nothing is revealed about her background, leaving her open for future writers to sketch out without needing convoluted retcons. One can sense the company's intellectual property lawyers once again forcing the existence of a character to whom insufficient thought had been given, but at least this time they didn't leap in an awkward direction.

What of Spider-Man's involvement? Well to be honest the series rather set a trend for his involvement in subsequent grand events whereby all too often he's relegated a background role for much of the story, only stepping forward for the odd scene here and there. He doesn't even get a one-on-one confrontation with Dr. Octopus. However it does show Spider-Man can fit quite easily into the ad hoc combined team of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and the Hulk (and in the later stages Spider-Woman) without much conflict or dissenting from orders (though admittedly Captain America is probably the easiest leader to follow of all the assembled heroes). Indeed in the various splits within the heroes he ultimately stays by the side of the Avengers when the X-Men break away and later when the Fantastic Four briefly decide against fighting Galactus.

During the middle part of the series Spider-Man is without his webs, after Mr. Fantastic cannibalises them to make an energy charger. But even without webs he fights on, with his most prominent one-on-one battle coming in issue #8 as he takes on and defeats Titania. Of course, issue #8 also sees a big change for him. With his costume badly torn in battle, he is naturally interested to learn of a machine that makes new costumes. So he wanders into a room, goes to the first machine that seems to ft the description and "thinks" into it. Not the smartest of moves for him. Out comes a black ball that expands into a new costume, one with its own built in webs and the ability to adjust and retract according to his thoughts.

But what of the story itself? In some senses Secret Wars reflects the nature of its creation - a powerful being gathering up lots of toys and pitching them against one another. All the characters are away from their comfort zone and their supporting casts, which has the benefit making it easier to follow if one isn't familiar with a particular title from the era. But it does also mean that at one level the adventure could descend into just one long endless fight. Wisely the series is structured in stages that allow at first for battles between the various sides, but for the last third it moves up a gear with first a battle against Galactus and then Dr. Doom's quest for ultimate power and the problems of holding it. Some characters get more attention than others, with Doom particularly benefiting. I'm not an expert on them all at this period in comics so I can't say for sure how well everyone is portrayed, but I did particularly find the portrayal of the Wasp a mess. She was at this time the Avengers' leader (although she deferred leadership of the whole group to Captain America as he was better known by the others) but here she's portrayed as the light headed, image obsessed wealthy kid that her caricature sometimes descends to. The plot provides for many moments of tension too, with perhaps the biggest when the heroes have to fight to stop Galactus from consuming the planet and there's a divide as Mr. Fantastic comes to the conclusion that not fighting may be the best thing for the universe whilst the others go to fight even though the odds are overwhelmingly against them. The heroes are not all united - the X-Men temporarily break away and even within their ranks Wolverine's methods are opposed by others whilst Rogue has crises of conscience. Elsewhere the Hulk is finding his intelligence slipping away, leading to self-doubt and angry moments with others as he fears for his future. (There's a myth that he holds up a whole mountain range in this story. Actually it's the Molecule Man who uses his power to lift one up and drop it on the heroes, and the Hulk just holds up the roof of the cavity the heroes quickly carve out.)

Secret Wars may be more about action and the excitement of bringing all the big guns together than about intricate character development and philosophical explorations, but it was inherently limited by its format and purpose. The plot may also be hackneyed - just how many times in science fiction have all powerful entities forced heroes and villains to fight in some special arena or other? - but it serves the main aim of the story. If I do have criticisms it's that there are times when the plot contorts slightly to cover points - the final issue sees the Enchantress consult a water sprite to find out more about the Beyonder, largely filling in gaps the narrative has missed out, and then a combination of her magic and the residual effects of the Beyonder's power inadvertently cures Curt Connors of the curse of the Lizard. But the series does not explain how Dr. Doom is alive and back in his existing body when it had recently been destroyed in an issue of Fantastic Four, or how Kang the Conqueror had survived his seeming destruction in the Avengers nearly a decade earlier (this was before time travel really distorted Kang's timeline as Kang). However the series is normally fast paced enough to evade such moments and the result is a good old action adventure that brings the top tier of the Marvel Universe together in an exciting battle. It served its purpose then and it remains a good read to this day.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The least popular posts

Another little aside, this time to look at this blog itself.

In the column to the right you can see which are the most popular posts on this blog, both in the past month and since it was created. But what about the other end of the scale? Which are the least read posts?

Invariably such a list will be dominated by both recent posts and by creator labels. So for this list I'm not going to rank any post from the last two months or which are labels. And so the list of the 10 least read posts to date is:

10. (Joint) Essential Ant-Man volume 1
10. (Joint) Spider-Man at Christmas
9. Essential Daredevil volume 2
8. Omitted material: Marvel Team-Up 74
7. Into the spin-offs
6. Introduction
4. (Joint) Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 2
4. (Joint) Omitted material: What If?
3. Peter David
2. Fini – for now
1. Some other heroes

And for those wondering, the 10 least read excluded posts are:

10. Essential Defenders volume 1
9. Team Titles
8. Essential Ghost Rider volume 1 - creator labels
7. Essential Silver Surfer volume 1
6. Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 6
5. Carmine Infantino (1925-2013)
4. Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4 - creator labels
3. Essential Killraven volume 1 - creator labels
2. Essential X-Factor volume 1
1. Essential X-Factor volume 1 - creator labels

Of course with some people reading either on the front page or by having the latest posts emailed to them these figures can't cover total readership. Nevertheless they're compiled on the same basis as the displays at the side.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Essential X-Factor volume 1

Essential X-Factor volume 1 reprints issues #1-16 & Annual #1 of X-Factor plus Avengers #262 & Fantastic Four #286 which carried a brief crossover setting up the series, and Thor #373-374 & Power Pack #27, which tied in as parts of the "Mutant Massacre" crossover. Most of those additional series are familiar but Power Pack (which really deserves its own Essential volume at some stage) was another team book consisting of young children, initially the four Power siblings who were given powers by an alien, though in this period they had an additional member in the form of Franklin Richards. The X-Factor issues are written by Bob Layton (#1-5 & the annual) and Louise Simonson (#6-16), with artwork handled by Jackson Guice (#1-3 & #5-7), Keith Pollard (#4), Marc Silvestri (#8 & #12), Terry Shoemaker (#9), Walter Simonson (#10-11 & #13-15), David Mazzucchelli (#16) and Layton (Annual). The Avengers issue is written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Buscema, the Fantastic Four issue is credited to "You Know Who" (John Byrne, protesting at editorial interference), the Thor issues are both written by Walter Simonson and draw by Sal Buscema, and the Power Pack issue is written by Louise Simonson and drawn by Jon Bogdanove. Due to such an extensive list, the creator labels are placed in a separate post.

X-Factor marks the point at which the X-Men really began to develop into a franchise of titles, both expanding but also contracting characters inwards. By 1985 there was already one spin-off in the form of the New Mutants (which sadly seems impossible to collect in the Essential series because the artwork reportedly doesn't convert well to black & white) but otherwise the various mutants had spread out into other titles that weren't really within a local orbit - for instance the Angel and Ice-Man had been part of the brief lived Champions in the 1970s alongside the distinctly non-mutants Hercules, the Black Widow and Ghost Rider, whilst the Beast was a longrunning Avengers member. Then in the early 1980s all three were used as key parts of the New Defenders, which saw structure imposed upon the previous non-team. Similarly Dazzler had her own title but she was just as likely to encounter the Avengers or the Fantastic Four as the X-Men. But X-Factor represented a new concentration. The New Defenders was cancelled to release the three ex-X-Men, and steps were taken to bring Cyclops back to superheroing from married life and restore Marvel Girl to life in order to present a team consisting of the original X-Men.

The initial establishing crossover doesn't have a great deal of meat to it and does nothing to give a sample of what the series would be about. Ultimately all that happens is that the Avengers find a cocoon in a bay and then with the Fantastic Four they open the cocoon and discover it contains Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), and then learn that instead of having been transformed into Phoenix all those years ago, she was instead placed in the cocoon and mimicked by the Phoenix force. There's no actual conflict or wider setting up, just an awkward retcon designed to bring back a character who really shouldn't have been killed off in the first place, and it's done in such a way to meet editorial dictats. From a modern day perspective it's also surprising to find a major new X-Men spin-off title being built up in the pages of Avengers and Fantastic Four. Later on the X-Men titles would increasingly become their own world with their own crossovers and few steps outside. If the Defenders was a title whose run fell almost exactly within the limits of the Bronze Age, then X-Factor, as the book which the (by then) New Defenders was cancelled for, was a title of the early Modern Age. However the tends would develop slowly. Not included in this volume is the end of the New Defenders in which most of that team was killed off, leaving the Beast (Hank McCoy), Angel (Warren Worthington III) and Iceman (Bobby Drake) free to be used in this team.

X-Factor began as a reunion of the original five X-Men, with the same objective as the original school had, namely finding mutants and training them to control their powers. At this time Professor Xavier had left Earth for a period and the original X-Men were in alliance with Magneto, a point that alienates the original members. Consequently the only appearances of the X-Men in this volume are either in flashback or figments of Cyclops's (Scott Summers's) mind or a brief encounter between Wolverine and Power Pack in the issue of the latter's title but without any of X-Factor present. This absence allows X-Factor to stand on its own, as a sign of how all five have developed and grown over the years whether on the team, on another or on their own. However in order to reassemble all five some quite bold story moves have had to be made. As noted above the rest of the New Defenders were killed off to release three of the members, whilst a bold move was made to restore Marvel Girl to life that preserved the death of Phoenix.

But by far the biggest problem is Scott's marriage to Madelyne Pryor and their son Christopher. Madelyne looked very similar to Jean and was amnesiac, resulting in speculation that she was in fact Jean, but equally she could just have been a natural look-a-like. The return of Jean throws a spanner in all this, but the way it's handled doesn't reflect well on Scott as he charges off to see his old girlfriend in spite of his wife telling him that if he does he shouldn't both coming back. This makes Scott look like an irresponsible jerk and he adds to the mess by refusing to tell Jean about his marriage, until she deduces it and forces the other three to confirm her suspicions. There is an attempt at damage control towards the end of the volume when after numerous phonecalls haven't been answered and letters returned unopened, Scott returns to the family home in Alaska, only to find the house was put up for sale the day he left and all records of Madelyne and Christopher have vanished, as though she was never there. The odd hint is dropped that perhaps somehow Madelyne could have been Jean all along but it just adds to the mystery of a messy situation. These developments come under the series's second writer, Louise Simonson, and show an early willingness to move on from the original set-up though the changes are not fully completed before this volume stops.

The original concept is that X-Factor publicly operates under the guise of being mutant hunters, accepting payment to locate and deal with mutant problems, but in reality using the operation in order to locate mutants who are unable to control their power, bring them in and give them crucial training. With the X-Men having grown from its roots and the New Mutants focusing on the schooling aspect, X-Factor carves out a niche that both continues the concepts from the earliest days but also offers a twist on it. It's further enhanced by the team adopting a second set of identities as the "X-Terminators", mutants outside the law who come to the aid of other mutants where necessary. This set-up can seem complicated, and on more than one occasion rescued mutants can't get their head round it, but in general the narrative makes it work. However trouble comes early on when the media discover that X-Factor is being financed by Warren, a publicly known mutant, leading to legal investigations of his affairs and the organisation is facing financial ruin.

Another sign of the desire to go right back to the originals is the way the Beast's mutation is reversed in issue #3 so that we now have almost the look of the originals, right down to the shape if not the design of the costumes. Wisely they don't take the remaining step and restore Iceman to his original snowman form. But then after the early change of writers the series starts to move onwards. Wisely Simonson doesn't immediately change everything overnight but instead makes a series of steady developments from the existing stories, such as using an encounter with Freedom Force, a government sanctioned incarnation of Mystique's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, to begin Warren's financial and political downfall. But the more shocking developments stem from the Mutant Massacre crossover when the Angel's wings are badly wounded and subsequently the doctors tell him they have to be amputated. He refuses but a court order declares him unable to make such a decision and his teammates are unable to stop the removal. Having seen his whole world crash about him, Warren seemingly commits suicide by taking off in a jet and then blowing it up. It's an incredibly bold step to have one of the team give up their life not to save others or halt a menace but because they feel they have nothing left to live for.

As well as the five X-Factor members, the series also steadily accumulates young mutants who stay around the base learning how to control their powers. At this point there isn't yet a New Mutants style spin-off junior team, but otherwise it does feel a little derivative. The characters are a mixture of the existing and new, with varying degrees of self-confidence and guilt, leading to several developments. Boom Boom had previously debuted in Secret Wars II, and has run away from home, spending time on the street. She is overly sure of herself and given to using her power to play pranks, to the annoyance of others. At the other end of the scale is Rusty Collins, a young naval rating whose fire powers manifested themselves when a woman made advances, burning her badly. Rusty is the first young mutant rescued by the team and both he and they go through s steep learning curve not only about his powers but also how to cope with one another. One key factor is Rusty's growing relationship with Skids, another young runaway with the power to generate a friction repelling forcefield around her, but which serves as much as a prison as protection for her. Initially joining the Morlocks, she survives the Mutant Massacre and when her fellow survivors return to the tunnels under New York she instead opts to stay with X-Factor and control her powers. The volume ends on a moment of triumph as she and Rusty both attain sufficient control to safely kiss. The other main rescuee is Artie Maddicks, the son of a geneticist who tries to find a way to undo mutation (reverting the Beast in the process). Artie can only communicate by generating images but shows bravery, spurning the potential "cure" when he sees how it has been obtained. His father gives his life to allow Artie and X-Factor to escape from the Brand Corporation. Artie's strange appearance and inability to speak disturb some of the others at first, but they come to accept him and he frequently provides crucial help to the others. His longstanding friendship with Leech begins here when the latter is one of the surviving Morlocks temporarily given shelter by X-Factor, but unlike Skids he returns to the tunnels on this occasion. The setting is rounded off by Cameron Hodge, X-Factor's Public Relations director.

Throughout the volume the team face a variety of different foes, as well as the more general menace of anti-mutant prejudice - a fear and hatred that the team at times fuels with the adverts they run for their covering service. There are more specific foes including several renegade mutants. By far the most significant foe introduced in these pages is Apocalypse. In his first storyline he uses a team called the Alliance of Evil, made up of mutants Tower, Frenzy, Timeshadow and Stinger, and then seeks to boost their powers. Towards the end of the volume, in a protracted subplot, he's shown recruiting three other mutants to be parts of his Horsemen of the Apocalypse and again working to enhance them as part of his overall scheme, but this volume ends before we can see it enacted. However it's clear he's a force to be reckoned with, both physically and through his schemes, and he provides the team with an interesting original archenemy. Elsewhere the team encounter Freedom Force, formerly the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants under Mystique but now working for the government and their members include the second Spider-Woman as well as Destiny, the Blob, Pyro, Avalanche and Spiral. There are some smaller scale foes as well, such as the Vanisher, who has now become a Fagin figure behind young street criminals, and later the Morlock Masque, who can use his powers to alter others' faces. The Mutant Massacre brings the team into conflict with the Marauders, of whom Sabretooth is the best known member seen, and others include Scalphunter, Harpoon, Arclight, Vertigo, Blockbuster, Prism and Scrambler. Human foes also occur, such as Carl Maddicks, Artie's father who seeks a cure for mutation and uses the Beast as a guinea pig to find it. A trip to the Soviet Union (one of the more dated references along with some of the clothes, particularly Boom Boom's) sees the team face off against the Crimson Dynamo and Doppelganger, a mutant who can copy not only other mutants' forms but also their powers. Later in Alaska, Cyclops is alone and has to face down a damaged Master Mold, the leading Sentinel.

The big storyline in this volume is the Mutant Massacre, which was the first of the grand crossovers in the various mutant titles. As the X-Men and X-Factor were still being kept apart at this stage, the storyline basically runs in two distinct strands and so the X-Men and New Mutants issues are not included here. (Nor is the Daredevil issue but that's somewhat standalone from the rest.) Instead we get a tightly written crossover with Thor and Power Pack, not least because Louise Simonson wrote Power Pack as well and her husband Walter wrote (and drew) Thor. It's an odd collection of titles but overall the story holds together well, with all heroes contributing to events. Neither title has been remotely reached in the Essentials yet - the latest Thor volume only gets up to #247 whilst Power Pack hasn't been touched yet. Overall the story is very down beat, with many Morlocks slaughtered and the Angel almost crucified. One particularly nasty moment comes when Power Pack finds Leech's adoptive mother dead and subsequently have to break the news to him. Leech's traumatic reaction is moving, as is its effect on Cyclops as he wonders about how the loss of a parent affects children, such as his own son. This leads him to make his return to Alaska to try to put his family back together, only to open up a new mystery.

Overall this volume shows a series that starts off with one premise of being the return of the original X-Men doing similar work to Professor Xavier albeit through a different method, but then starts to shift away from that with the writing out of the Angel and the increased prominence given to the rescued mutants as the time expands, whilst the overall cover organisation appears to be heading for a financial crash and the team may be forced out into the open as mutants. It's an interesting transition without any sudden changes of direction within the series. However in order to set up the series in the first place some major changes had to be introduced to release Cyclops and bring back Marvel Girl, and both of these are rather jarring, whilst the wiping out of the Defenders was also a rather sudden move. X-Factor may have launched around Marvel's twenty-fifth anniversary but I'm not convinced that reuniting the original X-Men was an absolutely necessary move at the time and this does feel like a spin-off series created for the sake of it; the first sign of the rampant explosion of X-titles that swamped the market in later years. To the series's credit it takes the arrangement and does its best with it, and does its best to establish its own identity, but it doesn't yet stand out as justifying the changes made to bring it about.

Essential X-Factor volume 1 - creator labels

Essential X-Factor volume 1 is another with large numbers of creators, hence a separate post to carry their labels.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 6

Time for another look at relevant issues from the original What If? series.

#34: "What If?", reprinted in What If? Classic volume 6

This was a special issue made up of many single page stories, or even less, of a humorous bent. Amongst them were the following featuring some aspects relating to Spider-Man:
  • "The Difference!!", written and drawn by Fred Hembeck
  • "What If Everyone Who'd Ever Been an Avenger Remained an Avenger?", written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Bob Hall
  • "What If Marvel Comics and the National Endowment for the Arts Presented Spidey Intellectual Stories", written by Roger Stern and drawn by Al Milgrom
  • "What If All the Super Heroes Who Now Live in New York City Moved to Toledo, Ohio?", written and drawn by Bob Budiansky
  • "What If Aunt May Became a Super Hero?", written and drawn by Mark Gruenwald
  • "What If Obnoxio the Clown Fought Crime?", written and drawn by Alan Kupperberg
  • "What If Spider-Man Had Married the Black Widow?", written by Mike Carlin and drawn by Ron Zalme
Some of these were tiny cameos - for instance Spider-Man shows up as part of the hordes of Avengers responding to a summons and crushing Ant-Man in a stampede, and no, I can't remember when Spider-Man had become an Avenger by this point. Everyone in Toledo is a one-panel joke about there being nothing for super-heroes to do there while super-villains destroy Manhattan, and marriage to the Black Widow is another single panel in which she lives up to her name. The Aunt May strip presents single images of three possible identities - Golden Oldie (a name used before her Marvel Team-Up appearance; this one is based on Iron Man), Ant-Aunt (based on Ant-Man) and Auntie Freeze (based on Ice-Man). The Obnoxio strip shows him trying multiple familiar costumes - his Spider-Man attempt fails because he has vertigo.

Fred Hembeck's "The Difference!" explores the distinction between imaginary stories and alternate reality stories - basically the latter take an established event, vary one factor and show the consequences whilst imaginary stories can present a totally absurd scenario with no thought for how it came about. Amongst the examples of imaginary stories are "What If Odin were Peter Parker's Uncle?", "What If Aunt May were Ant-Man?" and "What If Spider-Man married Spider-Woman?" (It's interesting how some concepts keep popping up.) "Spidey Intellectual Stories" is the most substantial story and sees Spidey take out the Mad Thinker who predicted 99.9999999% success but overlooked something. Spider-Man shows up and converse with the Thinker who eventually gets defeated by the logic of love over fear... and the story ends with the Watcher getting bored.

Some of the other stories present glimpses of scenarios that were later either used in the regular comics or in other What If?s including "What If Captain Marvel hadn't died?", "What If Phoenix still lived?" or "What If Elektra had survived?". Readers of the later Alpha Flight Assistant Editors' Month issue may recognise the concept behind "What If the Silver Surfer, White Tiger, Night Rider, Iceman and Moon Knight fought Wendigo in a snowstorm?" and "What If the Black Panther fought the Shroud Master of Darkness in a Coalmine?". The art is a very rare piece by Tom DeFalco. "What If Howard the Duck formed his own super-team?" with other members including Devil Dinosaur, Redwing, Zabu, Emma (a flying ant), Lockjaw, Aragorn and Dragon Man - it's a forerunner of the Pet Avengers. And there's plenty of fun. "What If Alpha Flight talked like T.V. Canadians?" is a reminder that it's not just the British who get hideously misrepresented by US television. And the very last story is "What If will happen when Stan Lee reads this issue?" "'Nuff said!"

This was very much a forerunner to Assistant Editors' Month and a reminder that Marvel can do good comedy. At the time the book was on a bimonthly schedule so it may have annoyed some readers at the time who had to wait another two months for a serious tale. But as one issue in a volume of six it's a fun distraction. The other stories in the volume are:
  • #33: "What If Dazzler Had Become the Herald of Galactus?" & "What If Iron Man Was Trapped in the Time of King Arthur?"
  • #35: "What If Elektra Had Lived?", ""Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe: And Thus Are Born The Cat People!" & "What If Yellowjacket Had Died?"
  • #36: "What If the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Super-Powers?" & "What If Nova Had Not Given Up His Powers?"
  • #37: "What If the Beast And The Thing Continued To Mutate?" (separate stories) & "What If The Silver Surfer Lost The Power Cosmic?"
  • #38: "What If Featuring Daredevil And Captain America Plus The Vision And The Scarlet Witch"
The cover to #38 doesn't actually pose any questions this time. The common theme of the issue is alternate futures in which ageing heroes carry on. The Daredevil story is set in 2013 but there aren't grand predictions of the world of the future beyond the Soviet Union being replaced by a Russian democracy. Concorde may still be flying and now able to fly over the continental US, and the UN may have relocated to Atlanta but otherwise the world hasn't changed much.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Essential Defenders volume 1

The Defenders were very different from the teams that came before them. They weren't a formal gathering of heroes drawn together into a regulated organisation like the Avengers or the All-Winners Squad. They weren't a family of adventurers like the Fantastic Four. And they weren't an outgrowth of a school for training the powered like the X-Men. Instead they were a "non-team", a disparate group of individuals with no real organisation and no clear definition of membership, working together as needs be.

The original Defenders ran from 1971 until 1985, almost exactly matching the traditional dates for the Bronze Age of Comics. In a further twist the set-up stories included here cover the years 1969-1971 where the beginning of the Bronze Age is unclear, whilst at the other end of the run the last twenty-seven issues, running in 1983-1985 when the Bronze Age was winding down, saw the team heavily transformed into the "New Defenders". Few titles so perfectly match the period and show the various trends that ran through it.

Essential Defenders volume 1 reprints Defenders #1-14, plus Doctor Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22 & #34-35, the Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Feature #1-3 and Avengers #116-118 plus an extract from issue #115. The Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner and Incredible Hulk issues feature first a crossover and then a team-up between different combinations of the three title characters and the Silver Surfer before they were made a regular team which was tested in the pages of Marvel Feature, one of Marvel's many try-out titles (later in its run it carried Ant-Man and then team-ups involving the Thing before the latter spun off into Marvel Two-in-One), before being given its own series. Early on in the run the Defenders clashed with the Avengers in what was at the time a lengthy crossover, and the issues from both series are included here.

The Marvel Feature issues are written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru, then the Defenders issues are written first by Steve Englehart and then by Len Wein, and all drawn by Sal Buscema. The Doctor Strange issue is written by Thomas and drawn by Gene Colan, the Incredible Hulk issue is written by Thomas and drawn by Herb Trimpe, the Sub-Mariner issues are all written by Thomas and drawn by Marie Severin or Buscema, and the Avengers issues are all written by Englehart and drawn by Bob Brown.

So what precisely is a "non-team"? The Defenders differ strongly from most Marvel teams in that there is no real formal organisation. There's no home or base for the members, no formal rules of incorporation, no regular meetings replete with rigid meeting protocol, no clear definition of membership or criteria for who actually is and isn't a "member" and so forth. At this stage it's just a group of heroes drawn together when needed, who work with others they encounter in the course of such gatherings. But even here there's also the start of disagreements over just how organised the Defenders should be, with Namor being very firm until the end that there are no members whilst the Valkyrie wishes to join. Doctor Strange may see himself as the "leader" of the Defenders, but he commands far less authority over the others than the likes of Mr. Fantastic or Professor X over their respective teams.

Despite the protests of Namor and the traditional "non-team" status of the Defenders, it is possible to identify some clear members. At this stage the members are all amongst the heroes most commonly associated with the team. A popular image has built up of the Defenders having four founders, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Incredible Hulk and the Silver Surfer. But this volume is a revelation of how that isn't quite the case as the four don't all appear together until Defenders #2, which is the fifth issue to go out under that title (Marvel Feature also included the individual strip's logo on the cover) and the tenth in the volume overall. It's questionable as to how far the Titans Three teaming of all bar Doctor Strange counts as a proto-Defenders story - they don't use the team name and, as we'll see, the good doctor is the initial keystone of the team. The initial Undying Ones crossover with Strange, Namor and the Hulk is on firmer ground here as it is revisited early on in the series. So the Surfer is really an add on, even if he has subsequently been included in many a founders' reunion, even within the original Defenders run itself (but that comes in much later volumes). The cover to this volume reuses that of Marvel Feature #1 and so we get just the other three heroes, thus doing a little bit to correct latter day revisionism. It's significant that all four heroes are strong loners, with Namor, the Hulk and the Surfer traditionally hostile to being pulled in to help others, a hostility that recurs throughout these issues making for some tense situations when the heroes are drawn together once more, with Namor in particular angry with the way he's drawn in. However over time Doctor Strange steadily works on developing a friendship with the Hulk to the point where at the end the Green Goliath is becoming more trusting and willing to stay around and work with the others. In contrast Namor is increasingly losing the battle against the Defenders becoming an ongoing team and being summoned against his will to help on missions, and so he withdraws altogether for the time being.

Several other heroes fight alongside the Defenders in these issues. The Valkyrie is a sort-of new character, the result of a fusion of an alter ego previously used by the Enchantress with a mad human woman. There's some initial discomfort amongst the others about this arrangement but the ethical side and any attempt to undo the spell are quickly forgotten and the Valkyrie becomes the first real committed recruit to the team who actually wants to be there. At the end of the volume Nighthawk works with the team and joins on the very last page, taking the place of Namor and showing the first signs of the Defenders becoming a slightly more coherent team. Namorita pops up but only for a single issue when her cousin is transported away and she helps find him. Hawkeye works with the Defenders for several issues, but his own comments at first place him clearly as a guest star rather than a "member" and when he departs he comments on having only stayed around for a specific job rather than anything permanent. That job involves the Black Knight who is even more firmly in the guest star category, encountering the Defenders on an adventure where he gets turned to stone. Later his spirit is sent back in time and the team go after him, but he opts to stay in the past and so never really becomes a Defender in any way. The volume also contains a couple of encounters with the Avengers, but the two groups are clearly delineated throughout.

The Defenders-Avengers conflict kicks off in earnest in Avengers #116, which starts with a note that it's the tenth anniversary of the start of the Avengers. It's an odd way to celebrate what is admittedly only a small milestone. The storyline itself was groundbreaking in being about the longest crossover to date in terms of both the number of issues and the publication time. Alongside the Undying Ones crossover that first brought Doctor Strange together with the other two founders, it was a sign of the way the comics industry would steadily develop to the stage where more and more storylines would require readers to buy additional issues from series they didn't normally read in order to get the whole story. It's great for providing extra material to fill collected editions decades later, but at the time it could lock out readers who for one reason or another didn't have access to the other title(s) on their local newsstands, and I don't know if subscribers got advance warning or special offers to receive the other issues as well. The storyline itself is relatively simple with one villain tricking the Defenders into a quest for a powerful item and another villain tricking the Avengers into fighting them, with each team assuming the others have impure motives. A significant chunk of the adventure is then taken up with fights between individual members of the team in different locations around the world before they realise they've been duped and team up to confront the villains and save the world. When summarised it does feel a bit like a standard Justice League of America plot. The emphasis is very much on the characters, with opportunities to see some clashes that hadn't been done for a while, such as Hawkeye against Iron Man or Namor against Captain America.

The Defenders face many villains in the course of these adventures. The Undying Ones debuted in Doctor Strange but in the final issue #183, which starts this volume off. The Nameless One and the Nightcrawler each debut in Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126 respectively but these issues were tying up Doctor Strange's story after his own title was cancelled. The Titans Three story sees the trio fight first El General, the (oh what a surprise) military dictator of a Latin American country (also later on during the Defenders/Avengers clash there's a visit to an ex-Nazi's castle in a Latin American country) and then a clash with the Avengers in order to prevent a new device from inadvertently destroying the Earth. Once the Defenders proper get going, they fight a mixture of new and pre-existing foes. The New foes include Omegatron, a magical computer with a doomsday nuclear weapon attached, Necrodamus, a dark sorcerer, Calizuma, the leader of a group of warrior wizards, Cyrus Black, another evil sorcerer with a longstanding grudge against Doctor Strange, Chandu, a twelfth century mystic, and Nebulon the Celestial Man. Note just how many of these foes could easily have debuted in Doctor Strange had it still been running. Foes from other series include Yandroth and then Dormammu, both from the Doctor Strange strip in Strange Tales, Xemnu, who first appeared in Journey into Mystery in the pre-superhero era, the Giant Squids and later Casiolena, both having debuted in Avengers, the Enchantress, the Executioner and later Loki, all of whom are originally from the Thor strip in Journey into Mystery, Attuma and the Red Ghost, both from Fantastic Four, Mordred, from the 1950s Black Knight, and the Squadron Sinister, also from Avengers. The latter are evil copies of the Squadron Supreme and both are a deliberate erm... "homage" to DC's Justice League of America, allowing for substitutes for inter-company crossovers before they actually happened. The Squadron members shown here are Hyperion (based on Superman), Doctor Spectrum (based on Green Lantern) and the Whizzer (based on the Flash) plus renegade turned good Nighthawk (based on Batman). Overall there are rather fewer pre-existing Doctor Strange foes in this volume than I'd come to expect, but many of the new creations could have been cut from his series's cloth. Invariably with the Defenders initially consisting of two physically very powerful heroes and one of the most powerful magicians, the threats they face have to be similarly strong and this doesn't really change with the addition of extra members and guest stars. Instead, the team continues facing predominantly magical and mythical foes, with a smattering of other fantastical and cosmic types.

The threats the team face are a mixture of the small and personal as well as the grand scale to the Earth or even the entire dimension. At the end of the team's first story in Marvel Feature #1 Doctor Strange suggests the name "Defenders" - "A fitting name for such a grouping as we -- if we've need to meet again." The name is convincing, especially as it is initially picked for a team assembled just in emergencies. And the team may increasingly congeal as the series proceeds but there is still a lot of defending going on. On the smaller scale the members do look out for each other somewhat, with an ongoing plotline as Doctor Strange tries to find a cure for the Black Knight's stone form. This leads to a small personalised adventure in issue #11 as everyone is transported to the twelfth century Middle East during a Crusade. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of research with both "King Richard the Lion Hearted" and Prince John out there, fighting the "Mohammedeans" or occasionally called "Arabs" - not the most sensitive terms to use. It's not the more nuanced and sensitive view of the Crusades that was emerging at the time.

As mentioned above, Defenders ran for the duration of the Bronze Age. Looking at just the early issues here there are some signs of the changes but others would come later. The team itself is structurally very different from the more grand and formalised teams established in the Silver Age. The crossover with Avengers began a trend that would grow over times. And there's a brief sign of some of the growing trend towards more socially aware comics, primarily in the form of the Valkyrie's feminism. But whilst she demonstrates her worth as a member of the team holding her own when she destroys the Omegatron early on, she's not the best representative of liberated women as after all she's one persona occupying another's body and was created by an Asgardian goddess (although that would get retconned later on) and so lacks actual experience of the human world. Otherwise much of the emphasis of the series is on fantastical adventures rather than on more down to earth affairs.

This is a volume that encompasses the team going through three different writers as one sets up the series, a second then has a year and a half long run (albeit only eleven issues as the series was initially bimonthly) before a third takes over for the last few issues. It surprising how the changing writers aren't particularly noticeable with the series maintaining its themes and not veering off in a new direction and having everything changed under a new regime. Consequently momentum is maintained and there's a good clear sense of what the Defenders are, even if there isn't a precise definition of membership, and how they carry out their objectives. The team contains quite a diverse set of individuals but manages to hold together and they're a believable force. The team was very different to much of what had come before, but that works to its advantage and it wasn't just another variation of already tried themes. It had a good strong start.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Essential Uncanny X-Men volume 1 aka Essential Classic X-Men volume 1

It's now time for Essential Uncanny X-Men volume 1. Or is that Essential Classic X-Men volume 1? This volume was first released in 1999 under the former title but in later years new editions, plus volumes 2 & 3 have instead used the latter title. Of course it contains material that wasn't printed under either the title "Uncanny X-Men" or "Classic X-Men". "What's going on?" some of you may ask. The rest of you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

X-Men is a complicated series because not only did it have a gap in publication but also the title of the series shifted in later years and then a second series used the original title. Originally a comic was launched in 1963 entitled "X-Men" and this ran for 66 issues until 1970 when declining sales led it to be converted into an all-reprint title. Then in 1975, a new version of the X-Men was launched, dubbed "The All-New, All-Different X-Men" but that description wasn't used as an actual title at the time. They took over the reprint title with new stories from issue #94 onwards. Over time the adjective "Uncanny" was attached to the logo but I'm not exactly sure when the book was formally retitled "Uncanny X-Men". Then in 1991, a second title was launched, simply entitled "X-Men". Since then things have become even more confusing.

When the Essentials began in 1996, Marvel opted to start the Essential X-Men reprints with the All-New All-Different era, which probably made commercial sense when it was unclear if the volumes would be successful. Then in 1999, by which time Essential X-Men had clocked up three volumes, they launched a 1960s X-Men volume and opted to use the "Uncanny" adjective to distinguish the two series. Unfortunately "Uncanny" wasn't a term attached to the series back then so later on Marvel changed its mind (or its decision makers) and opted to instead use the term "Classic X-Men" for the 1960s volumes, with the new edition of the first one retitled accordingly. This in itself is not a perfect solution as "Classic X-Men" was actually the original title (it was later "X-Men Classics") of a comic in the 1980s & 1990s which reprinted old X-Men stories and in the early years created a few original strips to fill up the page count and expand upon events shown. However it focused exclusively on the All-New All-Different era. But I guess no other snappy titles were available. For listing this post I've opted for the original title because it's the first used and also that edition is in my collection.

Regardless of the title on the cover, this volume reprints issues #1-24 of the original 1963 series X-Men. Issues #1-19 are written by Stan Lee and #20-24 by Roy Thomas. #1-11 are drawn by Jack Kirby who then provides layouts for #12 through #17, with the finished pencils by Alex Toth on #12 and Werner Roth on #13 to #17, under the pseudonym "Jay Garvin". Roth then draws the remaining seven issues, using his own name from issue #23 onwards.

Exactly what the basic concept and core appeal of the X-Men is has been disputed at times, with one dispute spawning a spin-off series. From a modern perspective it seems that the series is primarily about mutants in a world that hates and fears them. But these first adventures don't show a great deal of that - there's one storyline driven by it that introduces the Sentinels, but otherwise it's largely confined to individual scenes. Magneto does occasionally talk about mutant superiority and ruling the Earth but is really just a generic villain seeking world domination. It's hard to see him at this stage as an analogy to Malcolm X or Professor Xavier as one of Martin Luther King. And there's no exploration of the basic contradiction as to why humans should be scared of the power of mutants yet hero worship other superheroes. Rather the concept of mutation is primarily used as a short cut to allow lots of new characters with a diverse set of powers without having to come up with lots of origins for them.

Rather more prominent at this stage is the other interpretation of the X-Men, that of being a private specialist school for young superpowered heroes. The five students are all teenagers, starting the series aged between 16 (Iceman) to 18 (the Beast). We don't see much in the way of actual teaching outside of learning how to use their powers but the dynamics are there and it provides a clear reason for everyone to be working together, a point that can be lacking with some other teams. Issue #7 sees all five students graduate but this must have been quickly realised as an over-hasty move and for the rest of the series they carry on with "post-graduate studies". It's only in issue #24, right at the end of this volume, that the dynamic is threatened when Marvel Girl's parents opt to transfer her to a more conventional college, though she comes back for a weekend visit.

It's fortunate that she seems to be staying around at the end because Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) is by far the best portrayal of a female member on any of the early Silver Age Marvel teams. She isn't a weak thing constantly being protected by her brother, or the least powerful frequently pushed into the background, or a silly girl who just floats about making flirtatious comments. There may be moments when one or other of the X-Men has a mildly sexist attitude to her, and her power may be on a slightly smaller scale to at least three of the others', but in general Marvel Girl is treated as an equal member of the five who holds her own in situations.

All the team contribute something different in both their powers and their personalities. We can feel for Cyclops (Scott Summers), an awkward loner scared to act on his feelings not least because of the terrible power of his eyes, yet appreciate his growing strengths to the point where Professor X makes him the deputy leader of the team. The Beast (Hank McCoy) surprisingly combines a well read intellect with the most brute force powers on the team. Iceman (Bobby Drake) carries the burden of being the youngest member but has perhaps the strongest power and is able to stand up alone against Magneto for long enough. If there's a weaker link I feel it's the Angel (Warren Worthington III) - the ability to fly isn't really that significant in and of itself, and there's not a great exploration of the problems of having huge wings sticking out of his back that have to be strapped down and covered for him to go about in the world. There also isn't too much exploration of the clashes that can often happen when people from very different backgrounds and limited understanding of other environments are thrown together. But overall this is a group of people who are reasonably happy working together for the same ends and who have a credible reason to be there.

Guiding them all is Professor Charles Xavier. He may have arrived three months after the similarly wheel-chaired Chief in DC's Doom Patrol, but there were limited options for a non-combat active mentor figure that could be shown in the comics at the time. Professor X gets the most background of any of the regulars, as we learn about his childhood and family, and about how he lost the use of his legs, with both stories serving to give the background to key foes. One thing that doesn't quite stand out is that Xavier appears rather younger here than he would later be portrayed. There are references to his parents having worked on atomic bomb tests and both he and his step-brother served in the Korean War when it was only about a decade old. In issue #3 there's a thought bubble in which Xavier privately admits to feelings for Jean, something which is never returned to. Some have found this very creepy, but if Xavier was originally intended to only be about thirty years old then there was less of an age gap intended than later interpretations of Xavier would imply.

On thing that does surprise me is just how easily Xavier resorts to his telepathic powers to resolve problems, wiping the memories of foes and witnesses. As well as a convenient solution to problematic plot points, it also raises severe issues of the ethics of tampering with other people's minds, even if it is supposedly for a noble purpose. Xavier is not the only one to charge through what could be a moral dilemma - the Beast's solution to how to deal with Unus the Untouchable is to invent a device that temporarily massively increases Unus's power to the point where it is so strong that he can't actually do anything, then threatens to repeat using the device to permanently increase the powers if Unus ever steps out of line again. Later generations of X-Men writers would find a lot to explore in such situations, but here there isn't even an acknowledgement of the dilemma surrounding these actions, no matter how strong the foes.

The villains used fall into a mixture of three categories - new mutant foes, new non-mutant foes and foes from other series. In the first category we have a few of the X-Men's best known foes such as Magneto and the Blob, plus Magneto's team, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants which include the likes of Mastermind, the Toad, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The latter two are shown to have their misgivings about Magneto's methods, but feel honourbound to serve him for a time after he saved the Scarlet Witch's life, so their eventual decision to abandon him in issue #11, and subsequently to serve in the Avengers, comes as less of a surprise as it might seem. There are also some less well-known foes in the forms of the Vanisher and Unus the Untouchable, but after issue #8 mutation ceases to be the source of origins for new villains. Non-mutant foes include Lucifer, Dominus and the Ultra Robots, agents of yet another alien race that want to conquer the Earth, Maa-Gor and his Man-Apes, the Swamp Men, the mysterious Stranger, the Juggernaut, the Sentinels including their leader Master Mold, the Mimic and the Locust. Finally a handful of foes pop up from other series when Count Nefaria, a Maggia leader previously seen in Avengers, recruits a number of less remembered foes from various solo series including the Unicorn and the Scarecrow, both from Iron Man's strip in Tales of Suspense, the Eel and Plantman, both from the Human Torch's strip in Strange Tales, and the Porcupine from Ant-Man's strip in Tales to Astonish. It's an early example of various team-ups of sillier villains, though their appearance here is played straight rather than the more comical approach that has since become standard for such teamings.

Namor the Sub-Mariner also pops up in an ambiguous role when both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants seek to recruit him. I think this is the first time "mutant" is used in relation to the character, beginning a long trend of on and off attempts that have tried to tie him into the success of the mutant books. There are some other guest appearances including the Avengers (consisting of Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, the Wasp and Captain America) and the Human Torch, plus various cameos of the likes of Daredevil. But whilst the Sub-Mariner and Captain America who appear in these pages are the originals, there's another new version of a Golden Age character in the form of Ka-Zar. In place of the African based savage with his lion sidekick Zar, we now get a new version in the Savage Land, a lost prehistoric world hidden under the Antarctic, and this Ka-Zar is accompanied by the sabre-toothed tiger Zabu.

Reading these issues there's something sluggish about them. The artwork at the start is competent but not amongst Kirby's all-time best, and it's as though having done so much work creating the Marvel universe in many other titles, Lee was starting to burn out when it came to developing X-Men and it's not surprising to see that he stopped writing the title at an earlier stage than most other books from this era. There are some good ideas and some interesting plots but often they're not too well developed. The overuse of Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the first half of the volume doesn't help either. The move to multi-part stories offers a bit of development but it's still sluggish. The arrivals of Werner Roth and Roy Thomas show signs of improvement but it's only just beginning when this volume concludes. Ultimately the problem is that whilst the series is based on good ideas that are different from much of the rest of the Marvel line, the execution isn't the best and the series doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's a pity because X-Men really did offer some good prospects. Teenagers coming to terms with big changes sweeping over them, with finding out that they are more powerful than they realised and with facing a world of disapproval, fear and hatred are all themes that many can relate to and in later years have seen wonders performed with the series. And with the first issue coming out at the same time as the launch of Avengers it was a good contrast to a team of already established heroes to instead have a series of inexperienced heroes learning their way. And then there's the whole issue of persecuted minorities that was a live issue in the 1960s. It's temptingly easy to read more subtexts into fiction than may have been in the creators' minds, and I'm not sold on the idea of the X-Men as a deliberate analogy of the civil rights movement or of Magneto as an analogy of Malcolm X. Rather this is a relatively straightforward and frankly somewhat mediocre superhero series and very definitely neither early Silver Age Marvel nor the X-Men at their best.

Carmine Infantino (1925-2013)

Artist and editor Carmine Infantino passed away yesterday. He was 87.

Although best known for his work at DC Comics, including a stint as publisher during which time Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man was produced, he also drew many issues for Marvel and other companies. Amongst these were the first nineteen issues of the first Spider-Woman series, the second half of the original Nova series and individual issues of Ms. Marvel, What If? and Marvel Team-Up, all of which this blog has covered. All the relevant reviews can be found at the Carmine Infantino tag.
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