Thursday, 25 July 2013

Essential Wolverine volume 1

Today sees the release of The Wolverine in cinemas. So it's a good time to look at his debut in the Essentials.

Essential Wolverine volume 1 contains the first twenty-three issues of Wolverine's ongoing solo series from 1988. The writing is by first Chris Claremont and then Peter David then Archie Goodwin, whilst the art is mainly by John Buscema and then John Byrne with one issue by Gene Colan. Before anyone asks, there's no reunion of Byrne with Claremont here. Nor for that matter does David work with Byrne.

Back in 1996 when the Essentials were launched the initial strategy was to focus on the big name best selling titles. Three series were picked, one from each of the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and the Modern Age. Wolverine was the most recent of these and over subsequent years his series has consistently remained as the most recent Essential material, always ahead of other series reaching the Modern Age (mainly X-Men, Punisher and X-Factor) with the seventh and latest volume now up to the end of 2000. It's odd to think that this collected edition is now over twice as old as the contents were when it was first published.

Coming out so early in the Essential programme, it seems this volume missed a couple of tricks and there are some obvious absentees. Wolverine had had a couple of earlier mini-series, one solo (on which the movie is based) and one with Kitty Pryde, and 1988 also saw the launch of Marvel Comics Presents, which was a fortnightly anthology that carried a Wolverine story in most issues. Given later practice on the likes of Essential Punisher volume 1 it's likely that had this volume come out later it would have included at least the solo mini-series. Continuous collected editions haven't always worked out the best strategy for handling characters appearing in multiple ongoing titles though, so maybe one day we could see the Marvel Comics Presents material in its own Essential. (The Omnibus edition includes both limited series, early Marvel Comics Presents stories plus the origin saga and various other bits and pieces, with the most interest for this site being the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot from 1986.)

This series is surprisingly self-contained. It's always difficult to take a character from an existing team and give them a solo title without risking either producing rather light-weight tales that try to shift around developments in the ongoing team title, or else produce stories that are effectively just special focus issues of the main title. With Wolverine there's the additional problem that at this stage very little had been revealed about his background and origin beyond the occasional detail that popped up in specific stories. Much would change in the following thirteen or so years, so the early issues of this series would turn out to have been Chris Claremont's last opportunity to set down the character's full origin before others would start fleshing it out. Instead the mystery is broadly maintained with the occasional flashback and hint. One story is a flashback itself - presumably an emergency fill-in structured this way to minimise the amount of tweaking to fit it into the title when used - in which Wolverine tracks down a mercenary who had raped and killed a Canadian nun when attacking and seizing the American embassy in Iraq. Wolverine had been sent in by the Canadian government to rescue their citizens but was too late for some and now seeks revenge. Other issues hint at Wolverine's longevity, such as a moment in issue #5 when Jessica Drew spots a photograph of Wolverine and Chang, but then realises it's a 19th century tintype. Issue #10 contains a flashback to the Canadian frontier when Wolverine's girlfriend, the First Nations woman Silver Fox, was killed by Sabretooth. These various jigsaw pieces hint at a bigger tapestry yet to be revealed.

Instead the focus of the series is very much in the present. I'm only vaguely familiar with X-Men continuity in this period but this volume comes during the time when they had faked their deaths and relocated to the Australian outback. We very occasionally see glimpses of this setting and the other team members, but Wolverine is spending a lot of time away from there, in the east Asian island nation of Madripoor. With one large city by the same name, Madripoor appears to be based on Singapore. The city is full of contrasts, with the Hightown end a wealthy, sophisticated developed city ready for the twenty-first century, and the Lowtown ridden with poverty, crime and decay. "Gomorrah on the Pacific Rim" as Wolverine describes it in issue #17, the city provides a unique backdrop for the series and allows it to go its own way.

Interaction with the wider Marvel universe is surprisingly limited for a late 1980s title. The series launched a couple of months before the beginning of the Inferno crossover that ran in all the other X-Men books and many others in late 1988, but Wolverine side-steps it even though the character took part in the events over in Uncanny X-Men. It undoubtedly helps a new series to establish its own ground by not diving into such giant crossover events so early on. However the series wouldn't stand completely alone for long as issues #19 & #20 are part of the Acts of Vengeance crossover that ran in nearly all the Marvel titles at the time. But it's not too major an interaction with the overall plot as it merely amounts to the Kingpin having sent Tiger Shark to the Latin American country of Tierra Verde to kill the hero La Bandera. It's almost a classic example of how inconsequential many a crossover tie-in issue can be. Otherwise the issues are the middle parts of an ongoing storyline exclusive to the title. Beyond this there are no other crossovers contained here - for some reason Wolverine didn't get any annuals until 1995. Given the series's popularity that's a surprising omission, but it may have been a blessing given how many annuals in this period weren't by the regular creative teams, often contained some awkward continuity and were frequently part of convoluted crossovers.

Guest stars from other titles are rare, unsurprisingly given the series's location, with even the X-Men confined to the occasional cameo. However issues #7 & #8 guest star the Hulk, an appropriate early visitor as Wolverine first appeared in his series, but the Hulk in this era is one of the most unusual depictions of the character of all time. Instead of a stressed Bruce Banner turning into a rampaging green monster, he now turns into a normal intelligence giant grey-skinned man at night (per the very original stories) with the Hulk and Banner each trying to take action to restrain the other. At night, the Hulk works as "Joe Fixit", an enforcer in the Las Vegas underworld, complete with oversized suits. This incarnation can't really remember Wolverine, who finds the situation strange and funny. Amidst the broader backdrop of the criminal struggle in Madripoor we get more comedy as Wolverine manipulates the Hulk into various actions, including being forced to wear nothing but traditional purple trousers and arranging for Banner instead of the Hulk to receive the rewards from grateful women the Hulk has saved. (I've no idea if the Hulk's own series showed Banner - by this stage a married man - partaking in such actions but I guess if it was a problem then Peter David would have retconned it away.) The New Mutant Karma also shows up briefly, drawn into her uncle's criminal business.

But there are two characters added to the supporting cast who had been little seen for some years since the ending of the original Spider-Woman series, namely Jessica Drew and her friend Lindsay McCabe. Jessica has lost most of her powers, though can still stick to walls, and is now working as a private investigator in tandem with Lindsay. The latter is at times used as slight comic relief, but her acting skills are often pushed to the fore. There's no explicit referencing to Jessica's pheromone problem that attracts men and repulses women, or that the effect is reversed with Lindsay, but the two are shown as close and it's good to see characters who had a lot of potential squandered rescued from limbo. It staggers belief that Jessica doesn't recognise "Patch" as Wolverine and it's not until issue #14 that it's explicitly confirmed she's known all along, explaining in the following issue "When somebody with claws and a temper wants to believe he's fooling people, well... no one wants to be the one to say, 'Hey, Wolvie what's with the stupid eyepatch?'" Although a convincing explanation, it takes a long time and a change of writer to appear, suggesting it may not have been part of the original plan. Until then Jessica's failure to state this, even to herself, has made her look particularly foolish given her profession.

Madripoor attracts a wide variety of types that produce an interesting and diverse supporting cast for the series, such as O'Donnell, the co-owner of the Princess Bar frequented by Wolverine, Tai, the Chief of Police, Archie Corrigan, a freelance pilot with an interesting brother, Tyger Tiger, a woman struggling to be the new crimelord of Madripoor, and Prince Baran, the island's ruler. The island's criminal underworld is in a state of flux with General Coy, an ex-Vietnamese general now one of the rival contenders to Tyger. At a lower level the island also attracts various pirates, mercenaries, thugs and enforcers like Bloodsport and Roughouse. On a higher level a major epic struggle for the pieces of a special power source brings conflict with "Ba'al", another demon who gives the impression of being the Devil, and his followers in the form of vampires. A search for a powerful sword brings conflict with the Cult of the Black Blade whilst there are also a few existing foes such as the Silver Samurai. Going global, the trip to Tierra Verde brings conflict with Geist, a cyborg who has advised and manipulated dictators over many decades, including President Caridad, the military dictator (oh what a surprise) of the Latin American country. This also brings Wolverine's first conflict with Tiger Shark, as part of the general Acts of Vengeance theme of heroes battling other heroes' villains for the first time. The climax sees the revelation that tainted cocaine carries Spore, a living ancient biological weapon that enhances bodies before destroying them - the message about the effects of regular drugs is none too subtle.

Sabretooth appears in a flashback and makes his presence known in the present when he disposes of some thugs who attacked Wolverine and leaves a note making it clear only he will get to kill Wolverine. The idea of an unseen foe lurking about and actually saving the hero's life from rival threats is not original but can make for long term fear and anticipation. But it's best not to drag out such a theme for too long - we see the message in issue #10, Claremont's last, but by issue #23, and two writers later, nothing has been done with it. However we do know that Sabretooth was never fooled by the eyepatch.

The aforementioned eyepatch is Wolverine's attempt at a disguise and he uses the alias of "Patch" throughout his time in Madripoor in order to maintain the illusion that he and the other X-Men are dead. His costume doesn't appear until issue #14 and he genuinely believes he's maintaining a semblance of cover, even worrying about using his claws around Jessica and Lindsay lest they realise who he is. Taking heroes out of costumes rarely works for long and so eventually it's no surprise to find he's willing putting it back on. (Incidentally the costume is his second, the brown and orange affair he wore throughout the 1980s. The two pieces of artwork showing him in the yellow and blue costume on the first two covers to this volume are thus seriously inaccurate; the third cover reuses the art from issue #17.) Wolverine is a savage anti-hero and the series doesn't hold back in this regard. Like his contemporary the Punisher, who also only got an ongoing solo series that year, Wolverine has no qualms about killing foes to permanently end their threat. With his claws, metal skeleton, enhanced senses and healing factor, little can stop him.

This is appropriately quite a gritty series that doesn't hold back. Madripoor, or at least the Lowtown, is a dark, seedy world populated by the desperate and Wolverine does what he has to do. The series does spread its wings a bit with two epics, one that includes a brief visit to San Francisco and the other to Tierra Verde, but always the anchor to these tales is Madripoor and it's clear Wolverine enjoys it. Although it could have given a slightly more detailed explanation of the whole situation with the X-Men faking their deaths, this series doesn't rely on any others in order to advance its own stories and even the crossover issues manage to limit the main event to little more than a page that tells us everything we need to know and nothing superfluous to Wolverine. It's good to see such a strong, self-contained series from this era that really succeeds in doing something different from the norm whilst not straying too far from the general conventions.

And although the movie released today is based upon the earlier limited series, there's plenty in this volume that could be the basis for a sequel...

Monday, 22 July 2013

Over in the Marvel Omnibus editions

Having previously briefly looked at the Marvel Masterworks, it's time to turn to Marvel's other major ongoing series of collected editions - the Marvel Omnibus editions. These can be huge with the largest so far containing 1260 pages. Printed in full colour on glossy pages, and including letterspages, these hardcover books are at the top end of the collected editions market and cover a wide range of Marvel's output from the Golden Age to the Marvel Now! era.

Naturally Spider-Man's been in a few of these, but few of them contain material that the Essentials have so far skipped. However here's a listing of the various ones which reprint issues from the Spider-Man titles:

Spider-Man title specific Omnibuses

Amazing Spider-Man volume 1

Contains: Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-38 & Annual #1-2 and material from Strange Tales Annual #2 and Fantastic Four Annual #1

This collects the complete Steve Ditko run, including two prominent guest appearances inked by him. The Amazing Fantasy and Amazing Spider-Man issues are collected in Essential Spider-Man volume 1 and volume 2, the Strange Tales annual in Essential Human Torch volume 1 and the Fantastic Four annual in Essential Fantastic Four volume 1 (and both are also covered in Some non-essential Spider-Man Essentials). It's nice to see a collected edition that includes them in the overall run.

Amazing Spider-Man volume 2

Contains: Amazing Spider-Man #39-67 & Annual #3-5, Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1-2 and material from Not Brand Ecch #2, #6 & #11

Moving into the early part of the Romita era, the Spider-Man issues here are available in various editions of Essential Spider-Man volume 2, volume 3 and volume 4 (though be warned to get everything you need the latest editions of volumes 3 & 4 as the magazines weren't in the earlier editions). Not Brand Ecch hasn't been collected in the Essentials yet; it was a satirical comic parodying Marvel's own work (as well as some of its competitors).

Amazing Spider-Man by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane

Contains: Amazing Spider-Man #296-329 and selected material from Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #10

Some Omnibuses are based around particular creators more explicitly than others. Here we get the work of one of the key team from the late 1980s. None of these issues have yet been reached by the Essentials - we'll have to wait for Essential Spider-Man to get up to about volume 15 before we really get into this run - though Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2 has come very close to this period, finishing with the same month as Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Untold Tales of Spider-Man

Contains: Amazing Fantasy #16-18, Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1-25, -1 & Annual #'96 & '97, Strange Encounter, and material from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #37

Untold Tales of Spider-Man was the first ongoing retroactive Spider-Man series, telling new stories within the continuity of his earliest days. The same concept was used for a special limited series set immediately after Amazing Fantasy #15 and carrying the numbering forward. After the Untold Tales series ended there was a special one-shot called Strange Encounter, containing another team-up with Doctor Strange. Again none of this material has so far been touched by the Essentials.

Ultimate Spider-Man

Contains: Ultimate Spider-Man #1-39 & 1/2

The Ultimate Marvel line is a reimagining of the Marvel universe for the twenty-first century, aimed at newer readers unfamiliar with decades of continuity and bringing modern sensibilities to the origins and other stories. Some of the new elements have made it into recent movies and at least one cartoon series. This version of Spider-Man has been the backbone of the Ultimate universe and here are his first few years. Yet again this is not yet Essentialised.

Crossovers

Secret Wars II

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Web of Spider-Man #6, Amazing Spider-Man #268, #273-274 and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #111

Also contains: Secret Wars II #1-9, New Mutants #30 & #36-37, Captain America #308, Uncanny X-Men #196 & #202-203, Iron Man #197, Fantastic Four #282, #285, #288 & #316-319, Daredevil #223, Incredible Hulk #312, Avengers #260-261 & #265-266, Dazzler #40, Alpha Flight #28, The Thing #30, Doctor Strange #74, Cloak and Dagger #4, Power Pack #18, Thor #363, Power Man and Iron Fist #121, New Defenders #152, Quasar #8 and part of Deadpool Team-Up #1

The follow-up to the original Secret Wars series (covered in Secret Wars II), this was the first mega crossover from Marvel with the story crossing over into nearly every other Marvel title at the time, and also generating a few follow-up stories or spoofs of peripheral crossovers. Of the Spider-Man issues, Web of Spider-Man #6 and Amazing Spider-Man #268 are also collected in Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 1, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #111 is collected in Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man volume 5 and Amazing Spider-Man #274 is collected in Essential Ghost Rider volume 4 (also covered in A few Essential previews). So far Amazing Spider-Man #273 has been neither reached in the regular Essential Spider-Man nor reprinted as a tie-in issue elsewhere.

The Evolutionary War

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Amazing Spider-Man Annual #22, Web of Spider-Man Annual #4 and Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8

Also contains: X-Factor Annual #3, Punisher Annual #1, Silver Surfer Annual #1, New Mutants Annual #4, Fantastic Four Annual #21, Uncanny X-Men Annual #12, West Coast Avengers Annual #3 and Avengers Annual #17

Note that in all cases it just collects the Evolutionary War stories, including the history of the High Evolutionary, which is normally excluded when any of the annuals are collected in the Essentials.

Marvel experimented with a huge crossover engulfing all of the eleven annuals it published in 1988. From this point onwards none of the Spider-Man issues in crossover volumes have yet been reached by the Essentials.

The Spectacular Spider-Man annual started a chain of confusion about clones that saw the return of Gwen Stacey's duplicate and would subsequently lead to the creation of a new Carrion.

Inferno Crossovers

(Although not actually released as part of the Omnibus line; this one effectively follows the same format and I'm including it here because of the similarity to Acts of Vengeance below.)

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Amazing Spider-Man #311-313, Spectacular Spider-Man #146-148 and Web of Spider-Man #47-48

Also contains: Power Pack #40 & #42-44, Avengers #298-300, Fantastic Four #322-324, Daredevil #262-263 & 265, Excalibur #6-7 and Cloak & Dagger #4

Inferno was another mega crossover running through so many different Marvel titles that it has to be collected in two separate volumes. The core of the story was focused on the X-Men and is contained in the main Inferno volume, with this volume carrying the issues more peripheral to that story as heroes struggle with a changed New York. The Spider-Man issues include some major developments in the history of both the Green Goblin and the Hobgoblin. It's nice to see Amazing Spider-Man #312's cover used (with modern colouring) for the volume as a whole.

Atlantis Attacks

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Amazing Spider-Man Annual #23, Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #9 and Web of Spider-Man Annual #5.

Also contains: Silver Surfer Annual #2, Iron Man Annual #10, Marvel Comics Presents #26, Uncanny X-Men Annual #13, Punisher Annual #2, Daredevil Annual #4 or #5 (see below), Avengers Annual #18, New Mutants #76 & Annual #5, X-Factor Annual #4, Avengers West Coast #56 & Annual #4, Thor Annual #14 and Fantastic Four Annual #22

Note that once more this Omnibus contains just the Atlantis Attacks stories, including the history of the Serpent Crown. Note also that this was the second Daredevil annual to be #4. The following year's was number #6 so some listings have renumbered this one #5 but technically that number is the Pope John XX of Daredevil annuals.

This was another giant crossover running across even more annuals this time, with a few events spilling over into the regular series.

Acts of Vengeance

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Amazing Spider-Man #326-329, Spectacular Spider-Man #158-160 and Web of Spider-Man #59-61

Also contains: Avengers #311-313 & Annual #19, Avengers Spotlight #26-29, Avengers West Coast #53-55, Captain America #365-367, Iron Man #251-252, Quasar #5-7, Thor #411-413 and Cloak & Dagger #9

Just in case anybody in the late 1980s had collected all of The Evolutionary War, Inferno and Atlantis Attacks and had money left over, here was another mega crossover to set new records for the number of issues involved. Like Inferno, this is again split into separate volumes covering the core and tie-in issues. (Because of this split it's hard to find a good order to read the whole thing, but I reproduced one in this past post.) The Spider-Man issues see him acquire some interesting new powers.

Acts of Vengeance crossovers

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Web of Spider-Man #64-65

Also contains: Fantastic Four #334-336, Wolverine #19-20, Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #11-13, Incredible Hulk #363, Punisher #28-29, Punisher War Journal #12-13, Marc Spector: Moon Knight #8-10, Daredevil #275-276, Power Pack #53, Alpha Flight #79-80, New Mutants #84-86, Uncanny X-Men #256-258, X-Factor #49-50 and Damage Control #1-4

Whilst Spider-Man's involvement in the main crossover fell into the core of events, two issues of Web of Spider-Man fall into the aftermath. Otherwise some of his most famous foes took on different heroes, such as the Vulture fighting the New Mutants, the Hobgoblin versus Doctor Strange or the Scorpion amongst a team taking on Alpha Flight.

Guest appearances in the Spider-Man titles

Women of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Marvel Team-Up #8

Also contains: Tales to Astonish #51-58, X-Men #57, Night Nurse #1-4, The Cat #1-4, Giant-Size Creatures #1, Marvel Premiere #42, Shanna the She-Devil #1-5, Ka-Zar: Lord of the Hidden Jungle #2, Daredevil #108-112, Marvel Two-in-One #3, Marvel Graphic Novel #12, #16 & #18, Firestar #1-4, Sensational She-Hulk: Ceremony #1-2, Captain Marvel (1989 one-shot) #1, Captain Marvel (1994 one-shot) #1, Millie the Model #100, Patsy and Hedy Annual #1, Solo Avengers #9, Marvel Comics Presents #36 and Marvel Fanfare #59

Collecting many of Marvel's female heroes, although mainly the ones who didn't have titles of any length, and some non-superhero titles together, this volume spans the ages. Spider-Man teamed up with the Cat in Marvel Team-Up #8, which is also collected in Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 1.

Man-Thing Omnibus

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Marvel Team-Up #68

Also contains: Savage Tales #1, Astonishing Tales #12-13, Fear #10-19, Man-Thing (1974) #1-22, Giant-Size Man-Thing (yes there really was a comic with that title) #1-5, Monsters Unleashed #5 & #8-9, Incredible Hulk #197-198, Rampaging Hulk #7, Marvel Two-in-One #43, Man-Thing (1979) #1-11 and Doctor Strange #41

This collects the classic era of the character, including his encounter with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #68, also collected in Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 3 and in Essential Man-Thing volume 2.

Daredevil by Frank Miller companion

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #27-28

Also contains: Daredevil #219 & #226-233, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5 and Daredevil: Love and War

A companion to the main volume that contains Miller's original run on Daredevil, this volume contains his other work on the character whom he first drew in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #27-28, also collected in Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man volume 1.

Howard the Duck

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Marvel Team-Up #96

Also contains: Adventure into Fear #19, Man-Thing #1, Giant-Size Man-Thing #4-5, Howard the Duck #1-33 & Annual #1 and Marvel Treasury Edition #12

Another volume focusing upon a single character in his classic years, this goes a little further than Essential Howard the Duck volume 1 and collects some of his post-Steve Gerber appearances, including Marvel Team-Up #96 which is also collected in Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4.

Wolverine volume 1

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1

Also contains: Wolverine #1-4, Wolverine (volume 2) #1-10, Marvel Comics Presents #1-10 & #72-84, Incredible Hulk #180-182 & #340, Marvel Treasury Edition #26, The Best of Marvel Comics, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #1-6, Marvel Age Annual #4, Punisher War Journal #6-7, Captain America Annual #8 and Uncanny X-Men #172-173

This brings together many of the character's solo appearances from before and during the early years of his ongoing title. Amongst them is the 1986 one-shot Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, in which major developments hit one of the supporting cast. It hasn't yet been collected in the Essentials.

Miscellaneous

Amazing Fantasy

Contains: Amazing Adventures #1-6, Amazing Adult Fantasy #7-14 and Amazing Fantasy #15

A collection of the complete series (under its several different titles) where Spider-Man first appeared, this shows what came before him and alongside him. It's such an obvious idea that I'm amazed that it hasn't happened before. The Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15 is also collected in Essential Spider-Man volume 1 (and in many, many other places - I think it's the single most reprinted Marvel story of all time).

Marvel Now!

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Superior Spider-Man #1

Also contains: Uncanny Avengers #1, Marvel Now! Point One #1, A+X #1, Deadpool #1, Iron Man #1, All-New X-Men #1, Fantastic Four #1, Thor: God of Thunder #1, X-Men Legacy #1, Captain America #1, Indestructible Hulk #1, FF #1, Avengers #1, T-Bolts #1, Avengers Arena #1, Cable/X-Force #1, New Avengers #1, Savage Wolverine #1, Young Avengers #1, Uncanny X-Men #1, Secret Avengers #1, Nova #1, Guardians of the Galaxy #1, Red She-Hulk #58, Fearless Defenders #1, Journey Into Mystery #646, Morbius #1, Uncanny X-Force #1, Wolverine #1, X-Men #1 and Avengers Assemble #9

Marvel have recently implemented a major relaunch on much of their line. This volume carries all the relaunch issues. Superior Spider-Man is a very long way away in the Essentials.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 1

Power Pack Classic volume 1 contains issues #1 to #10 of the original series. As bonus material it reproduces a page with biographies of the creators, presumably from issue #1, and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for all four children and the team as a whole. (This is potentially confusing as the individual entries cover the children as they are here but the team entry includes details from issues in later volumes.) All the issues are written by Louise Simonson and most are drawn by June Brigman with individual fill-ins by Mary Wiltshire and Brent Anderson, and layouts on one issue by Mark Badger.

All too often attempts to create different types of heroes instead just produce grown white men with breasts/different skin colours/different sized bodies. It can make the resulting strip disappointing. But here we get a series that looks and feels like it features ordinary children. Louise Simonson's brief biography in the first issue mentions both her love of children's literature (to the point of spending much of her childhood with her nose in a book - a trait passed on to Julie) and her daughter Juliana (presumably the source of Julie's name unless someone else came up with that) suggesting a strong understanding of children and it shows. Similarly, June Brigman's biography mentions her work drawing quick pastel pictures for the public, with portraits of children commonly requested. This combined experience shows as the Power siblings look and sound like real children - maybe slightly rounded and idealised as with much fiction, but a far cry from the "little adults" that so often appear.

The first four issues also feel different in another way in that they're set in an undefined (unless I've missed a caption), almost idyllic location. Again, this feels reminiscent of a lot of children's literature that is set in a place that could be many readers' own homes or else a holiday destination. The Power family home may be a house by a beach with the surrounding settlement not shown until issue #5, but it's not hard to see elements familiar to many readers that brings the story close to home in a way that setting it in a world famous city with familiar landmarks wouldn't necessarily do so. Unfortunately issue #5 initiates that very such move but more on that below. In the meantime, we have a take on a familiar tale of children on their own discovering something incredible and being drawn into the excitement and magic of it all. But this is no mere retread of stories by the likes of E. Nesbit though it's not hard to spot the influence (several siblings in an undefined by real place encountering the fantastical within that environment). Instead the series has a surprisingly hard edge, shown most vividly in the first issue where the children find themselves in the middle of conflict between two alien races, and the kind alien who rescues them dies in the process.

The opening storyline is pretty self-contained and may have been conceived as a standalone mini-series to try out the characters before committing to an ongoing title (in the same year this was tried with the West Coast Avengers whilst immediate popularity saw the Transformers limited series converted into an ongoing title). As a result the origin story worked well when I first read it in the earlier Origin Album trade paperback and it holds up just as well here. The first issue introduces all the characters and situation and so we embark on a journey as the kids learn about their powers and face repeated danger. It's also a clever move that the children don't immediately gasp the full extent of their powers and subsequent issues show them learning how to control them better, particularly Alex whose powers don't come with directional controls.

What's also surprising about the opening four issues is the complete absence of guest stars from the rest of the Marvel universe, especially as none of the characters had been seen before. It helps to add to the novelty and freshness of the series. Unfortunately as the series progresses this point is tossed to the wind when the family move to New York at the end of issue #5, with issues #6-8 featuring a team-up with Cloak & Dagger and also a guest appearance by Spider-Man, whilst #9-10 feature Marrina, from the pages of Alpha Flight. Yes the Marvel universe is a shared one, and such encounters a regular part, but they don't need to happen all the time. And in what is still a new series they can cramp the space needed for the star characters to develop and grow. And with the exception of Spider-Man the guest stars are all relatively obscure so it's hard to see any of their appearances as being motivated by boosting the series's exposure and sales. So just why are they needed?

The situations and foes are a mixture of the familiar and the new, with the siblings and allies facing threats such as hostile aliens, militaristic businessmen, agents of a government body, would be crime lords and monsters with enhanced powers. It's a strong mixture of scenarios and the series doesn't kiddify itself when presenting a drug lord or covering the origin of Cloak and Dagger. We also see the four siblings handling the problems of ordinary kids - keeping secrets from their parents, enduring boring trips with relatives, adjusting to a new school and so forth. It all helps to round them out.

As for the children themselves, we get four well-rounded siblings who each have distinctive personalities. Katie/Energizer is the youngest and most innocent but also the most optimistic; she's also wound up with the most difficult to control power. At the other end of the scale Alex/Gee also has powers that are hard to control and some of his attempts are quite amusing. Then there's Jack/Mass Masters, the grumpy younger boy who can control his powers but initially thinks his are the most useless; however over time he discovers more and more uses for them. Finally there's Julie/Lightspeed, the older girl who almost always has her head in a book and who can move and fly fast. With separate personalities and powers each is clearly distinctive and offers more than their own. In most of their adventures they have help from Friday, a sentient Kymellian smartship (a running gag is that no one is sure what Friday's gender is, leading to arguments about the correct pronouns). The main supporting cast are their parents, who are supportive and caring but ignorant of their children's powers.

These first ten issues show a bold new idea hit the ground running. Unfortunately some of the early momentum is wasted when the series moves to New York and begins a run of guest stars who often distract rather than enhance the stories they're in. But the basic concept is quite novel for Marvel and the execution works well. This is a title that may evoke themes from children's literature but it isn't written purely for readers the same age as the stars. Rather this is a title that can be enjoyed by all ages and fit alongside other, more convention superhero series.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Power Pack - an introduction

It's time for a look at a series that deserves at least one Essential volume but instead has to do with other collected editions for now...

I've had limited experience of Power Pack over the years. As a child I only read a couple of issues of Marvel UK's ThunderCats and none of Star Wars. Although Power Pack was a back-up strip in both titles either it wasn't in the issues I saw or I simply forgot about it. Then when I first got into US comics directly (as opposed to experiencing them via the various UK reprint titles) it was the early 1990s and their series had ended by then. About the only time I can recall seeing any of the Power siblings in then-current comics was an appearance by Alex as "Power Pax" in the New Warriors when they showed up in the Spider-Man crossover "Maximum Clonage". Of all the Spider-Man storylines to be first sighted in, that one is amongst the worst. (I did see rather a lot of Franklin Richards in many titles, but those appearances almost never reference his Power Pack days and in any case he was long established so doesn't count in this regard.) The 2000 mini-series is one of many that seems to have completely slipped me by.

I have, however, encountered a small number of back issues in one form or another. Issue #18 is a crossover with Secret Wars II and whilst I was picking that up I came across a surprisingly cheap good quality copy of the 1988 Origin Album trade paperback which reprinted the first four issues. The team also made a few other appearances in the period around Secret Wars II that I saw, such as in Thor and Fantastic Four. Later on I found the special one-shot with Spider-Man dealing with sexual abuse, and more recently issue #27 is part of the "Mutant Massacre" crossover and so has popped up in both Essential X-Factor volume 1 and Essential X-Men volume 6.

At first glance it's curious that Power Pack hasn't had any Essential volumes yet, especially as a modern day revival has been quite successful in digest form. One possible explanation is that the modern series are a new continuity. Another could be the different age target (more on this below). But a third is the release of the early part of the series in the Classic format, and the success of those books. I forget where exactly I saw it, but I've seen sources stating that the Essentials sometimes rely on other collected editions with higher budgets doing the ground work in creating new masters of the material. There's also a desire to avoid too many overlapping releases. And the success or failure of the Classics may determine whether or not demand is perceived for an Essential release.

There's a general presumption about children's fiction that children generally aren't interested in the adventures of those younger than themselves. How true this is I'm not sure. As a child I was a voracious reader of many of Enid Blyton's mystery and adventure series but largely stopped reading them before I was as old as the youngest of the children (although ages weren't always spelt out, particularly when the series accumulated a dozen or more books). However that stopping was in part down to a teacher who imposed a "Blyton Ban" (without explaining why - she was terrible at explaining things) when I was eight years old and I drifted towards other books before realising the ban was no longer in force. On the other hand I read most of the Chronicles of Narnia books when I was a year or two older than the ages of the youngest children involved but I can't remember the ages being specified (and the BBC adaptations of 1988-1990 cast all of the children with actors older than me and sometimes older than the conventional ages given in the books). With most children's television I was either younger than the major characters or not home from school in time.

How does this impact on the comics industry? I'm from a country where, for good or for bad, comics, by which I should probably specify the publishing format, have the reputation of being for children (to the point that manga, graphic novels and even trade paperbacks somewhat stand aside from the term and even series like 2000 AD or the reprints of US Marvel & DC superheroes can now be found amongst the sci-fi/cult magazines rather than with other comics in most W.H. Smith's, in a change from when I was a child). The reasons behind this are many and generally beyond the scope of the post, but I do wonder if part of this is down to the predominance in the popular mind of titles either featuring children and/or tying in with children's television and toys. It's notable that for most of their history the US superhero comics have generally shied away from titles starring children - there were some examples in the early years, most obviously Captain Marvel (although even he is a boy who transforms into a man), but most either faded away or grew older. By the 1960s most of the DC child versions and sidekicks, like Superboy or Robin, were teens rather than children, whilst over at Marvel the youngest heroes were also at least in high school. Titles starring pre-teen children just don't seem to have existed for decades before Power Pack.

So just who is Power Pack aimed at? The advert for the series says "for readers of all generations" and the series is surprisingly multi-levelled. Children can presumably identify with the characters who face the problems of sibling rivalry, keeping secrets from parents, enduring trips with relatives, the travails of school and more that children know all too well. The secretly-young-at-heart can identify as well, whilst parents may warm to the series also. But I suspect many teenagers and above at the time may have found it embarrassing to be seen buying and reading the series. This is a pity because the series works on another level too, exploring some quite deep themes without trivialising them. I'd be fascinated to see the precise breakdown of the original series's sales as whilst the figures don't tell everything, there are indications that subscriptions disproportionately go to the young (either as gifts or because they don't have easy transport access to comic shops) and newsstand sales skew younger than the direct market. If these assumptions are true (and that's a big if) and the complete data is available (another big if because the Statement of Ownerships don't go into that level whilst the series was published in an era of multiple direct market distributors) then it may be possible to get an idea of at least which markets the title did best in. However none of the sales data directly records the age of buyers, let alone readers, so we will never know exactly who was reading it.

But regardless of who was reading the series in the 1980s, or who buys and reads the modern version, there are now three Classic volumes of the series (and a fourth was scheduled earlier this year but then withdrawn - hopefully it will one day materialise) with the first twenty-six issues of the series and some associated crossovers. It's time for a look at one of Marvel's more unusual teams.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Essential Howard the Duck volume 1

Essential Howard the Duck volume 1 contains issues #1-27 & Annual #1 from the character's original series, plus the character's first appearance in Adventure into Fear #19 as reprinted with a short introduction in Man-Thing #1, solo strips from Giant-Size Man-Thing #4-5 (yes they really did publish a comic with that name, so stop sniggering) and Marvel Treasury Edition #12, a rare issue with original material.

Everything in this volume is written by Steve Gerber. The duck's first appearance in Adventure into Fear is drawn by Val Mayerik, who returns for the annual and issues #22-23. Frank Brunner draws both the Giant-Size Man-Thing stories and then the first two issues of the regular series. Gene Colan draws most of the series with individual issues by John Buscema (#3), Carmine Infantino (#21) and "A Cast of Thousands" on issue #16. The Marvel Treasury Edition is drawn by Sal Buscema.

The cover to the volume reuses the Brian Bolland cover (though with new colours) from issue #33 which isn't included here and was published many years later. It may seem an odd choice to use a later image but it's possibly a consequence of a design change forced upon Howard as a result of legal noises from Disney after the stories in this volume were originally published and a legally binding agreement signed at the time. Most obviously Howard was now wearing trousers.

This volume was first published eleven years ago and to date there's been no sign of a second volume, thus making Howard the Duck technically the series with the longest gap between Essential volumes (bar Conan, but Marvel lost the rights after the first and only volume appeared). But what could go in a second volume? Back in the 1970s Howard's original series continued for another four issues with various other writers. Then it was replaced by a black & white magazine that lasted nine issues, with other stories in the magazine Crazy #63-77 and one further story in the magazine Bizarre Adventures #34. Around the same time Howard appeared in Marvel Team-Up #96 (reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up #4). And then there was a newspaper strip. The onset of the movie in 1985 saw a brief revival of the original title and numbering, with a further issue #32 put out, followed by issue #33 nine months later. (There was also a three issue adaptation of the movie but such adaptations are usually out of continuity and ignored by everything else.) Beyond that Howard appeared in a four part story in Sensational She Hulk, written by Steve Gerber, then in 1996/7 there were several appearances when Howard returned, including a story by Gerber in Spider-Man Team-Up, a one-shot Christmas special and other appearances in Ghost Rider, Generation X and the Daydreamers limited series. The Marvel Omnibus edition from 2008 does include issues #28-33 and Marvel Team-Up #96 as well.

In an interview in 2001 about a forthcoming new Howard the Duck limited series (which this volume was published to tie in with), Gerber stated "...I don't even intend to acknowledge any of the Howard stories published after the first 27 issues of the original comic book. As far as I'm concerned, they're not part of the Howard "canon." They're apocrypha." It's rare to find a character so strongly associated with a single creator or for subsequent creators' work on the character to be so heavily ignored by fans, and doubtless this is why there hasn't been sufficient demand for the further adventures of Howard to appear in the Essentials though it would be nice for newer generations to have the chance to see them for themselves without having to obtain the pricey Omnibus (which is now out of print and commanding very high prices on the back copy market).

Gerber's Howard the Duck has acquired a legendary status amongst those who read it at the time. But sometimes such legendary fiction can prove to be a disappointment when read by later generations. Often the ideas pioneered have been so heavily copied and refined that an original groundbreaking piece can seem flat by comparison. And satire is invariably of its own time and often requires not just knowledge of the world it draws upon but also actual experience. Without such experience the satire can date faster than just about anything else. I find some of the contemporary Saturday Night Lives a bit tough going because they're drawing upon a very different world and because these were the early days when they were still finding their feet. How did the duck fare in similar circumstances?

To be perfectly frank, not very well. I've found this volume takes much longer and harder to get through than just about any other Essential I've so far reviewed. I suspect the main problem is rooted in my lack of a cultural context for much of the satire. It's easy to spot targets such as Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and his cult as an unsubtle parody of Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, or the election campaign as a commentary on how US politics was conducted at the time. But with other subjects it's harder to recognise the target and so all that's left is the surface level comedy. This series has not aged well at all.

As for the stories themselves, throughout these pages Howard encounters many foes, most of who are of a decidedly surreal nature. Amongst them are Garkko the Man-Frog, a human who takes a potion and turns into a frog but the transformation goes all the way until he's just an animal who gets run over by a police car. Then there's Bessie the vampire cow, who has spent three hundred years pursuing the vampire who changed her in the first place. Pro-Rata a wizard who plans to become the Chief Accountant of the universe once he has obtained the final key for the Cosmic Calculator. Turnip-Man, the fusion of a frustrated writer with a sentient space turnip. Count Macho, a bullying show-off. Winky Man, the alter ego of a man with a sleeping disorder. In his daytime ego of Paul Same he becomes a friend and flatmate of Howard and Beverly. The Reverend John Moon Yuc, the charismatic leader of a religious cult known as "Yucchies". The Gingerbread Man, baked by a woman suspected of being a witch. Dr. Reich, the mysterious director of a psychiatric clinic, who looks like Adolph Hitler. Bzzk'Jho, the offspring of a demon and a madman. Howard's Presidential campaign brings other villains out of the woodwork, with the Treasury Edition special teaming Howard and the Defenders against the Band of the Bland, a group of unoriginal villains made up of Dr. Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Black Hole, Spanker and Tillie the Hun. Then the campaign is derailed by the schemes of Le Beaver, a fanatical Canadian nationalist. A trip to the Middle East country of "Bagmom" sees Howard and the others uncover a plot by Prince Hassim and Roxxon, Marvel's regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, to secure oil drilling rights from a reluctant Caliph. Then there's SOOFI - Save Our Offspring From Indecency - a morality crusade whose members are prepared to kill and commit suicide in the name of morality. One of their members is transformed by a microwave explosion into Sudd - a living bubble bath who sets out to clean up the neighbourhood. There are few villains from the wider Marvel universe but the last few issues see him encounter the Circus of Crime, here consisting of the classic line-up of the Ringmaster, the Clown, Cannonball, the Great Gambonnos and Princess Python.

Two foes of Howard's are better known than the others. Regularly popping up on the sidelines is the Kidney Lady, an old woman obsessed about preventing any possible damage to her kidneys. Midway through the run she tells how she fell for a book seller who went to go and fight in the war, leaving behind just a hotel bill and a book on the importance of kidneys. But issue #15 sees the debut of Howard's best known foe, Doctor Bong. A journalist specialising in distortion and smears, he has become a mad scientist operating out of a castle on a strange island, performing experiments that produce strange half-human, half-animal creatures. He also has a bizarre bell shaped helmet from which he can emit sonic frequencies to cause whatever effect is desired. He has been infatuated with Beverly since they were students and now he forces her to marry him to save Howard from death. By the standards of the title he's not the most bizarre thing around but he makes for a pretty rounded character

However this series is very much not a conventional adventuring hero series, even if it is set in the regular Marvel universe, and many issues focus on the problems Howard faces as he tries to go about life in a world he never made. Often he encounters twists on day to day problems, such as his quest for money in issue #5 as he successively works as an assistant to a clown on children's television until he attacks the star, then as a debt collector for an electrical appliance company, and finally tries his hand wrestling and actually beats champion "The Goat" only to be denied the promised money for any man who can last three rounds because he's not a man. Most bizarre of all is Howard's campaign for President. Whilst travelling from Cleveland to New York, Howard and Beverley take jobs at the All-Night Party convention. Soon Howard finds himself as the party nominee on a platform of straightforward, honest offensive talking. He rapidly attracts the assassins and smear merchants. With the slogan "Get Down, America!" and a managed campaign that tries to avoid saying anything, Howard could have swept to victory. But then on polling day the papers fall for a hoax and print an appallingly composited picture that purports to show Howard and Beverley in the bath together. These were the days before widespread early voting and the Clintons so Howard's chances evaporated. Nevertheless in the real world thousands of voters found a fictional fowl talker from another dimension a better prospect than Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter (I can't imagine why...) and wrote-in votes for the Duck. Imagine if so many had done so and he'd actually won electoral votes... It's a good satire on politics and provides the series with its best remembered moment.

The series also overtly satirises a number of its contemporary comics such as Conan the Barbarian, Killraven and Master of Kung-Fu, though the more overt superheroes are sent-up though guest appearances instead. Spider-Man was used in the first issue in one of his earliest full-on guest appearances to launch a title, then later in the run we get a couple of issues with Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, in which his demonic side is inadvertently released to possess Howard. There are also overt parodies of other cultural phenomenons, most obviously a Star Wars parody in which Howard and a gang of heroes, including a guest appearance by the Man-Thing, have to save the universe using the power of the "Farce".

But not everyone Howard encounters is hostile to him. In the first issue he encounters by far his best known friend, Beverly Switzler. The two then stay together for the next eighteen issues until she agrees to marry Doctor Bong to save Howard. Beverly is a young woman trying to make her own way in life and brings a sense of positive optimism to contrast with Howard’s pessimism. It's astonishing how close their relationship is shown to be, even though comics in that era couldn't be totally explicit. But there's a naturalness to their relationship that makes it work in spite of the basic oddness of it. After all the basic theme of the series is that the difference between the serious and the silly is only a point of view. Along the way Howard and Beverly acquire two other recurring friends of note, Winda Wester, a young lady with a speech impediment who is initially demonically possessed, and Paul Same, a tenant in the same building as Beverly, who initially has a sleep problem caused by insecurities but he overcomes this and discovers his talent as an artist. There's also Beverly's uncle who has the same name, but goes by "Lee" who briefly employs Howard and then gives him the remainder of the time of his rented flat. Between the various recurring characters we get some good interactions that enhance the succession of situations Howard finds himself in.

Issue #16 is a curiosity. Having missed the regular deadline, Steve Gerber instead offer up a rambling essay that's a dialogue between Howard and his creator, discussing the problems writers face and various literary conventions and trappings. It's a reminder that there was a time when something had to be published and the alternative was a reprint as seen with some of the other volumes from the 1970s. Clearly the idea of creating in advance standby fill-in issues that would be ready to print in any emergency had not yet been implemented at Marvel, although even that approach would have created problems because issue #16 comes in the middle of the introduction of Doctor Bong. The essay is exactly what it says it is, namely the rushed ramblings of a writer in a hurry. There's a few interesting concepts in there such as the battle between a show girl, an ostrich and a lamp shade, but overall it's not too satisfying. As a one-off novelty it naturally excited a few and at least it wasn't a reprint or a delayed issue, but it feels terribly awkward and out of place. Still full kudos to Gerber and Marvel for confessing so publicly about the delays on the series.

Sadly this volume ends on an incomplete note. Howard has concluded his dealings with the Circus of Crime and is left in Cleveland with memories. Beverly is still married to Doctor Bong and seems to be liking it, at least until he husband announces his plans both for world conquest and to slay Howard. However we don't get to see how that would be resolved, because after issue #27 Steve Gerber left the title. He contributed to one further issue for contractual reasons but otherwise fell out with Marvel over the issue of the ownership of Howard. It would be many years before he would write for both the company and the character again. Other writers would handle the character in the meantime, but the Essentials have yet to show their take on things. And there also came Howard's biggest moment.

Now it's almost impossible to approach the subject of Howard the Duck without acknowledging the film. Somehow this has obtained a reputation as one of the worst movies of all time. Yes it fell into the trap that virtually all live Marvel adaptations pre-Blade did of just not understanding the source material (it's not just about a duck from another world landing in ours, it's a strong social satire) and yes the duck costume isn't the best, but it's a relatively straight forward tale of a stranger trying to get home, having to understand the world he's come to and face a threat that stands in his way. Perhaps the real problem was expectations - if you take the creator of Star Wars and have him present an adaptation of a cult comic book character then you're already building things up. And then who exactly was the film aimed at? Comic book movies still had a "for kids" reputation but this one has some quite racy moments, to the point that here in the UK there's two versions on DVD, an uncut 12 certificate and a cut PG version. So if it wasn't really aiming at the cult audience the comic attracted and not really suitable for kids and not a high action, far out science fiction piece then just who was the target audience? All that said the film has done better than reported - its total box office takings exceeded production costs and that's even before the home video and TV income. (When the DVD came out here some years ago, somebody even felt confident enough to take out adverts in Metro newspaper.) But the critics panned it, George Lucas disowned it and even in the comics it's been hard for Howard to avoid jokes about the film. But should Howard be dogged by the film? Captain America didn't spend two decades with his rather awful 1990 film brought up all the time and it's easy to forget that there was a TV movie that said it was based on Doctor Strange in the late 1970s. But then they've both done a lot of other things. By contrast Howard has had long periods of inertia. And there was the massive creators' rights case which invariably drew attention to the potential profitability of the property, so its seeming failure to do well stood out more.

His original series was more successful in its day and left a whole generation of fans who gave it legendary status. But sometimes series don't live up to the legends surrounding them and that's very much the case with this one. To a contemporary cult audience Howard the Duck may well have been a biting satire on life in the mid-70s but when viewed out of context and out of time it really doesn't stand up very well. All in all this is quite a disappointment.
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