Friday, 27 September 2013

Essential Conan volume 1

Essential Conan volume 1 reprints issues #1-21 & #23-25 of Conan the Barbarian and also the cover of issue #22 which reprinted issue #1, per the standard fill-in practice at the time. The only thing missing appears to be a back-up story in issue #10 introducing Kull the Conqueror. Everything is scripted by Roy Thomas, with some issues based on stories by Robert E. Howard, one plotted by John Jakes and one two-part story plotted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn. Nearly everything is drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith (using the truncated surname "Smith") apart from two issues and a back-up story by Gil Kane and one issue by John Buscema.

Conan himself is a licensed character from the fiction of Robert E. Howard. A barbarian in a fictitious "lost" historic era, the Hyborian Age, he's been a major cultural phenomenon with many books, films, cartoons and more. So naturally he's almost completely passed me by with my only other experience being the Conan the Adventurer cartoon series from the 1990s. But one of the beauties of reprint series like the Essentials is the ability to pick up a sizeable chunk of a series in one go and broaden one's horizons.

The setting is the world some twelve thousands of years ago. Issue #16 includes a map of the known world during the Hyborian Age. Broadly it appears to be southern Europe and most of Africa but with the Mediterranean dry, the Caspian Sea stretching much further and some other alterations to waterways. It would be foolish to try to map the various kingdoms and states to modern day political entities even when names are familiar, such as "Picts" or look similar, such as "Zembabwei". The stories are set in a supposed lost period of history to avoid excess historical research (and the concept of civilisations rising and falling with day to day technology regressing is familiar from actual recorded history) and it's not possible to determine just how accurate any of the detail is. But I'd be very surprised if there really were monsters, aliens and magic on Earth approximately ten thousand years ago.

Conan the Barbarian was the first major Marvel title to be created without Stan Lee's writing. Instead we get the writing of Roy Thomas, and it's clear that this was a particular special project for him, and the art of a young Barry Windsor-Smith. It's easy to see why this rapidly became a cult hit, with the series winning several Shazam Awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts, including Best New Talent 1970 for Windsor-Smith, Best Continuing Feature 1971, Best Writer (Dramatic Division) 1971 for Thomas and Best Individual Story 1973 for issue #24's "The Song of Red Sonja". This series isn't conventional superheroics in a loincloth but instead a tale of a wandering wild man. Conan is no saint, and he regular drinks, cheats, steals, lusts and more in ways that the traditional Marvel heroes would never do. And his attitude to woman is prehistoric, not at all like a 1970s man facing the decade's wave of feminism. Upon meeting Red Sonja in battle, his reaction is "No one fights all my battles for me... least of all a wench who should be tending a hearth somewhere!"

In the earliest issues Conan wears a helmet with horns sticking out the front, but it undermined his look, making him seem almost civilised. Fortunately Jenna removes it in issue #6 and it doesn't return in this volume. This helps to reinforce his wild image and often he feels like a raw frontiersman suddenly cast upon civilisation. Whether it was a conscious decision of Thomas and Windsor-Smith or a necessity forced upon them by the material they sometimes adapted, Conan goes from city to city, roaming across the Hyborian world leaving few roots as he goes. In the first issue he is shown a vision of the future where he will become king of a mighty empire, but he doesn't know where. In the meantime he journeys all over with no attachments and very little in the way of a supporting cast or recurring foes.

Issue #6 sees the introduction of Jenna, who disappears at the end of the issue, but reappears in issue #8. She briefly becomes Conan's companion, but in a sign of what a harsh world it is where no-one can be trusted, issue #11 sees here betray him to the authorities for money when her affections shift to another man. The issue is also bold for its era by showing Conan standing in a bedroom whilst Jenna has nothing but bedsheets wrapped around her. Nothing explicit is said, but it's clear what they've been doing, making her betrayal of him that night even more hurtful.

Conan briefly gains a fighting companion in the form of Fafnir, a thief and pirate who is the sole other survivor of his ship. When the two are washed up on an island they find they have nothing more to fight over and wander together until they find themselves forced to fight for Prince Yezdigerd of Turan as he besieges Makkalet. In battle Fafnir is wounded by a flaming arrow to the arm and then falls into the ocean. It's a sad moment as Conan discovers his friend amongst the wounded, his arm having been infected and amputated. Subsequently Fafnir is chucked overboard with the other dead and wounded, causing Conan to abandon Yezdigerd.

Issue #7 introduces Thoth-Amon, a powerful sorcerer who has become one of Conan's best known foes, but as with many of his subsequent appearances he doesn't directly encounter Conan and instead works through agents. Late on issue #14 sees the debut of Kulan Gath, who would make a number of appearances in the present days as well. Otherwise the foes Conan fights are largely one-offs.

There are a number of appearances of other sword and sorcery heroes, doubtlessly in the hope of spinning some of them off into series of their own. Although not included in this volume, issue #10 carried a back-up story starring Kull the Conqueror and on a number of other occasions reference is made to him when describing the history of Conan's world. Issues #14-15 guest-star the anti-hero Elric of Melniboné, with his creator Michael Moorcock co-plotting. Not all the attempts feature pre-existing named heroes though, with issue #12 containing a back-up by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane (who appear on panel at the start and end to explain the reason for doing the story) telling of a man's attempts to win a Baron's daughter and inheritance through tackling a dragon - but there's a hidden curse. However it's issue #23 that introduces probably the best known other Hyborian character, Red Sonja. A warrior woman who can more than hold her own against all comers, and easily fends off Conan's advances even as she gets him to help her steal riches, she's a strong character with much potential. Her dress is different from her most familiar look with a metal bikini and instead she wears a full chain mail top.

Occasionally the dialogue is a little racy and I was amazed to see in issue #24 a man in a tavern shouting "...you worthless wank!" with another man asking ""'Wank' did you say now!?" I presume somebody subsequently pointed out that this is British slang for masturbation, as I've seen a 1970s Treasury Edition reprint of the story that changes it to "Wonk". At least I assume it's the Treasury Edition and not the Essential that has the altered version but there's a long history of reprints changing dialogue from the original and often it's hard to tell which most accurately reproduces what the original publication carried. But there are other subtle sexual references throughout the issue, ranging from a palace tower that has an incredibly phallic design to a moment when Conan and Sonja are bathing and Conan looks at Sonja who rejects his advances and there's a mini explosion in the water below his waist. How on earth did this stuff get passed the Comics Code Authority? The Treasury Edition reprint is a bit mixed - on the one hand it uses an earlier version of artwork in this scene where instead of Sonja holding up her chain mail top she has just her hands in front of her breasts but on the other it cuts down the panel with the explosion so that part of the effect is lost.

Issues #20-23 show signs of problems in production. #20 has a two page epilogue which tells the story entirely through narrated captions. It could be an experiment with methods of storytelling but it feels more like an attempt to rush through the remaining plot in the space available due to artistic spread. Then #21 has Windsor-Smith only doing layouts and four other artists providing the finishes, invariably a sign of problems with deadlines. A caption at the end of #21 & the cover of #22 both promise "The Shadow of the Vulture" (another adaptation from Howard) but instead the latter contains a reprint, another sign of deadlines not being met. It's a pity as it means the last few issues by Windsor-Smith are something of a stumble out, though issue #24 is a good one to go out on.

It's odd that such a series was launched with a relative novice drawing it, though this was reportedly due to the high cost per issue of the licence, but the result shows some amazing art as Windsor-Smith's quickly adapted to the genre. When he's replaced on the final issue here by John Buscema it feels rather an anti-climax. Buscema's work is often good and it's unfair to judge his Conan work on just his first issue, but he would clearly need more time to settle in.

Overall this is quite a strong volume and the series is a real change from the norm. The comics market has a long history of trying many different genres and experimenting, and that's just as true for a reprint series as for the originals. It's good to see Conan had a chance to be included whilst there was time. Unfortunately this volume was published in 2000, and not long afterwards Marvel relinquished the licence to Conan after thirty years. Consequently they are unable to reprint this volume and so it remains the only Essential with a "frame" original cover to have not been subsequently reprinted with a later cover format. Short of something unforeseen, it's unlikely that Marvel will ever be able to reprint any more Conan material and thus add more of his adventures to the Essential line. (This has also cause several of the gaps in the What It? Classics.) As a result this volume is now difficult to obtain. However Dark Horse Comics now hold the Conan licence and have reprinted much of the Marvel material so the stories are reasonably accessible still.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1

Given the success of Marvel Team-Up, it's not surprising that another team-up title was launched less than two years later, even if the series was first tested in the pages of the last couple of issues of Marvel Feature. But it's interesting that the character who headlined the series was none other than the Thing, rather than a hero with their own solo series. Still this offered the opportunity for a little more development than Spider-Man got in Marvel Team-Up.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1 contains the try-out issues Marvel Feature #11-12 then issues #1-20 & #22-25 plus Annual #1 of the regular series, and also Marvel Team-Up #47 and Fantastic Four Annual #11; both of which carry crossovers with the main series. Issue #21 is missing due to the guest star being Doc Savage who Marvel no longer has the rights for.

The Marvel Feature issues are written by Len Wein and Mike Friedrich, and both are drawn by Jim Starlin. The main series is primarily written by Steve Gerber and Bill Mantlo, with other issues and/or plots from the likes of Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Roger Slifer, Len Wein, Jim Shooter, Marv Wolfman and Tony Isabella. Both the Two-in-One and Fantastic Four annuals are written by Thomas, whilst the Team-Up is by Mantlo. The art is by a mix, with Sal Buscema drawing the most, including the Two-in-One annual, Ron Wilson drawing the next largest and also the Team-Up, and other issues by Gil Kane, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Arvell Jones, Marie Severin and Pablo Marcos. The Fantastic Four annual is drawn by John Buscema. Because that's such a large number of credits, I've created a separate post to carry some of the labels.

As per usual for team-up titles, here's a list of the guest stars in each issue. Note that the Thing was a headline character in every issue so there's no need to list him each time.

Marvel Feature 11. The Incredible Hulk
Marvel Feature 12. Iron Man
1. The Man-Thing
2. The Sub-Mariner
3. Daredevil
4. Captain America
5. The Guardians of the Galaxy
6. Doctor Strange
7. Valkyrie
8. Ghost Rider
9. The Mighty Thor
10. The Black Widow
11. The Golem
12. Iron Man
13. Power Man
14. The Son of Satan
15. Morbius
16. Ka-Zar, Lord of the Hidden Jungle
17. Spider-Man
(Marvel Team-Up 47. Spider-Man)
18. The Scarecrow
19. Tigra
(Fantastic Four Annual 11. The Invaders)
Annual 1. The Liberty Legion
20. The Liberty Legion
22. The Mighty Thor
23. The Mighty Thor
24. Black Goliath
25. Iron Fist

The absence of issue #21 is slightly noticeable because it's followed up on in the next couple of issues as the Thing and the Human Torch seek medical treatment for a man wounded there. As a result it's now slightly unfortunate that issue #23 includes the caption "2-in-1 #21 wherein Tom Lightner became temporarily merged with his own father in a freak time-fusion accident. Where were you? -- Arch." However other than this the absent issue is reasonably self-contained and so we're not thrust into the second part of a conflict without the first.

The series starts out heavily focused on the classic Silver Age characters but as time goes on more and more newer characters and teams appear (and for the record I consider the Invaders a newer team even if many of the individual characters had appeared back in the Golden Age), including many from the horror titles Marvel had so much success with in the early 1970s. Note that there are none of the X-Men, a reminder that there was a time when they weren't all prominent across the Marvel line. But also it's telling that outside of their annual none of the rest of the Fantastic Four are billed guest stars and so we don't get any issues that frankly could have been told in that title.

But also it seems clear that the Fantastic Four was still the title in which all the major developments in Ben Grimm's life happened. This is most obvious towards the end of this volume when Ben is suddenly back to being an ordinary human and wearing a special exo-skeleton to resemble his previous rocky form. However this is only explicitly shown in the Invaders/Liberty Legion storyline in the two annuals and issue #20. In the rest of the issues in this period there's no clear indication as to whether he's an ordinary human in the exo-skeleton or his more traditional transformed self. In issue #25 he may be attending a baseball match with Alicia, but traditionally she's been drawn more to his rocky form and so for all we know he may be wearing it to please her. Ben's relationship with Alicia is similarly not really developed here and she largely appears just to set the scene, much as Peter Parker's relationships aren't actually developed in Marvel Team-Up.

This is actually quite a disappointment as the resulting title is once again an add-on for a lead character rather than an opportunity to allow one who didn't have their own solo title to thrive and develop. A character appearing in a team-up book and a team title may be an odd combination but it would be a way of spreading them around without the overexposure of also having a solo series, which is why a Fantastic Four member was a better choice than, say, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor or the Hulk, all of whom had both solo and team titles. But given the dynamics of the Fantastic Four it's probably not possible to have one of the members additionally starring in anything more than an add-on series, a lesson probably true whether we consider this series, the 1960s Human Torch tales or the Thing's 1980s solo series. Either the additional series would remain purely a set of extra adventures or the character development would be uneven or the character would have to be taken out of the Fantastic Four for a time.

One of the few recurring sub-plots in the early issues involves the discovery of Wundarr, an alien adult who has spent his whole life to date inside a rocket. He has both incredibly enhanced strength and the knowledge & emotional outlook of an infant. Stories see the Thing, Namorita and others looking after him and tying to explain the world around him to him. He disappears after issue #9, along with writer Steve Gerber. After a few writers on one or two issues it's not until issue #15 that Bill Mantlo becomes a permanent feature until near the end, barring an issue by Roy Thomas to finish up the story from the annual after that overran. All this suggests a title in a degree of flux, and there are other signs that editorial didn't always know what they were doing. The boxes at the end of a number of issues also point to editorial chaos by promising things in the next issue that don't appear. Issue #8 ends promising the next issue will feature "one of the most-requested team-up sagas of all" - the Thing and Iron Fist. Instead issue #9 brings Thor and Iron Fist doesn't appear until #25. Issue #14 promises the next issue will feature Ka-Zar but that doesn't happen until #16 and instead in the meantime we get Morbius. Issue #11 promises "The Most Unexpected Team-Up of All!!! The Thing and -- Who?" I seriously doubt this was meant to apply to Iron Man. And issue #16 ends with a declaration that the story continues in Marvel Team-Up #47. In actual fact the story continues in Two-in-One #17 and Team-Up #47 is the second part of the crossover. When combined with the fact that the regular artists on the two series seem to have swapped titles for the crossover and the Two-in-One opening reads as though it's the next part of the continuing saga in Team-Up then it seems somebody got the order of publication muddled up when planning the crossover and hurriedly switched the two parts round to compensate. A similar thing happens with the annual crossover - issue #19 announces the appearance of the Liberty Legion in "Giant-Size Two-in-One #1 on sale June 22nd!". Instead the story begins in Fantastic Four annual and June 22nd actually saw a Marvel Two-in-One annual, with the Giant-Size format now abandoned. None of this detracts from the readability of the volume but it does hint at a somewhat haphazard approach to the title that doesn't always engender confidence that it has a clear direction.

The result is a set of stories that are largely a collection of individual tales in which the Thing and whichever guest star take on various villains. Now this criticism can be made of almost any team-up series but many manage to overcome it in various ways, whether by presenting particularly dramatic adventures, or by showing some big developments in the lives of one of the guest stars or even just by having a good strong lead to base the series around. And after reading this volume I've found myself to not be a particularly big fan of the Thing. In this era he's largely progressed beyond the tragedy of being trapped in his rocky body, now being rather at ease with it and there aren't any real developments in his life here. He just goes through a succession of adventures that are mostly inconsequential to all involved.

That's not to say there aren't some dramatic stories though or that the villains aren't memorable. New foes include the Mortoid, a robotic assassin, the Sword of Judgement terrorist group, including their leader Agamemnon, Braggadoom, a monster produced by an accident of genetic engineering, Volcanus, a man hoping to use volcanic energy to make him all powerful, the Cougar, a criminal who can transform into a cat-man, Sky Shark, a Nazi pilot and engineer, and Slicer, his ally from Japan, the Devourer, a monster from amongst the Egyptian deities, and General Chonga, a renegade warlord from the island of Kaiwann in east Asia. However many of the foes encountered in these stories come from other series, often those featuring one or other of the banner heroes. Starting with those previously seen in the pages of Fantastic Four we see foes such as Kurrgo, the Molecule Man (who is confusingly replaced by his near identical "son", an artificial construct with the same powers who gets killed off in his first appearance), the Miracle Man, the Puppet Master and Prester John. Then beyond there we get Thanos and his henchmen the Blood Brothers, originally from Iron Man but at the time staring in a major epic in Captain Marvel, the Leader, from the Incredible Hulk, the Dakkamites and the Badoon, both alien races from the original Silver Surfer series, the Enchantress, the Executioner and Seth, all from Thor, the Black Spectre, Nekra Sinclair and the Mandril, all tying into a storyline in Daredevil though the latter two debuted in Shanna, the She-Devil, Kaballa, from the Golem's strip in a revived Strange Tales, Kthara, from the Son of Satan's strip in Marvel Spotlight, the Living Eraser and the Hijacker, both from Ant-Man/Giant-Man's strip in Tales to Astonish and Kalumai, from the Scarecrow's strip in Dead of Night. The crossover with Marvel Team-Up see the Thing and Spider-Man fight Basilisk, who had previously battled Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and Mr Fantastic in a couple of earlier Marvel Team-Ups. Meanwhile the annual crossover with Fantastic Four pits up a variety of Nazi foes including the older Baron Zemo, from the early issues of the Avengers, and then various foes first seen in the Invaders, such as Brain Drain, Meranno, also known as U-Man, and Master Man.

But the adventures themselves are mostly routine. The Invaders/Liberty Legion encounter does stand out a bit because it involves two trips back in time to 1942. Unfortunately it falls into a problem that a lot of Marvel time travel stories suffer from, in that it's not entirely clear just what the rules of time travel are and whether the past can be altered or not. Some stories follow a rule that the past is fixed and travel back in time only creates an alternate timeline. Others act as though the past can be changed, with consequences in the present, or even use the time travel to establish involvement in a key incident in history. Here we get examples of two of these, as Mr Fantastic deduces that the reason Namor and Captain America have never mentioned meeting the Fantastic Four during the war is because it was "a different time continuum". However the Four's encounter leads to the infamous moment when Captain America and Baron Zemo fight and the latter is hit by the adhesive that seals his hood to his face. Including that moment itself feels like excessive continuity for the sake of it, as part of Roy Thomas's great project to integrate the Golden Age comics into the Marvel universe and tie them in with everything that the Silver Age had already established. But it adds to the confusion and leaves one wondering if there was ever really a threat at all.

The rest of the series gives us a good sample of Marvel in the mid 1970s and it's nice to go straight from a team-up with a big name hero like Spider-Man to an ultra obscure one like the Scarecrow, showing the flexibility on the format. And both the writing and art are at least confident or even very good, especially Sal Buscema's work. But I just feel the problem is one has to really, really like the Thing in the first place for this series to work as otherwise it's just a set of add-on adventures that fail to take advantage of being the sole book with "the Thing" on the cover. Since the series lasted one hundred issues (now collected in three more Essential volumes), it's possible later issues managed to address some of the problems but here at the start this is a rather disposable series.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1 - creator labels

Once again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Essential Classic X-Men volume 2

Although I'm mostly looking at the first volumes of various series at the moment, when the posts on a particular series prove especially popular I'll take a look at the next one in the series. It's no surprise which one is the most popular so far...

The X-Men's 1960s adventures continue in this second volume, which altered the title used for this particular Essential series but I detailed that last time. Essential Classic X-Men volume 2 contains X-Men #25 to #53, plus Avengers #53 which was the second half of a crossover. Bonus material includes a few unused covers - issue #33 went through a number of attempts before the final version, which is also used for the volume's cover.

Most of the writing, including the Avengers issue, is by Roy Thomas. Gary Friedrich scripts a couple of issues and Arnold Drake writes the last six. The art is more mixed, starting with Werner Roth and then a succession of others including Ross Andru, Don Heck and George Tuska, plus single issue jobs by Jack Sparling, Dan Adkins and Jim Steranko. Some issues are drawn in combinations of two or even three. The Avengers issue is drawn by John Buscema.

This volume covers nearly half the original run of the X-Men. And reading it through it soon becomes clear why the series was getting into dire straits sales wise. Much of the run seems to tread water, there's an early example of subplots that run on and on and don't deliver particularly great conclusions, there are twists to the status quo introduced and then ignored, there's a split in the later issues to carry a back-up detailing the origins of the various X-Men and even that can't get things in order, and there's a general sense of a lack of direction even when a major status quo changer comes in the middle. This volume shows a somewhat tired series that doesn't really know what it's doing or where it's going.

Part of this is rooted in the stability of the line-up. Despite being a school with a mission to find and train mutants to use their powers to help others, there are no permanent additions to the team at this stage. One of the only two significant changes in this run of issues comes at the end of issue #39 when the team adopt new, individualistic costumes with Cyclops adopted the predominantly blue affair he's best known for. The issue's cover is used as the artwork on the volume's back cover (at least on the first edition) but recoloured and it gives the impression the Angel has a bare torso, bar braces; however it turns out this is an error on the new colourist's part and in fact his top is yellow. There is a brief recruitment drive when membership is offered to Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and even Spider-Man, but each declines for their own reasons. The one new member added is the Mimic but his arrogance is all too clear and he demands the deputy leadership of the X-Men as a condition for joining. He never really gels with the others and his powers are limited to copying others', but after a few issues he gets a good send out that actually makes use of his unique abilities when in a fight with the Super Adaptoid their powers cancel each other out. Earlier he almost succumbs to the Adaptoid's offer to enhance his powers, but he realises that this will mean slavery and he quickly turns. He leaves with his powers seemingly negated by the encounter but retires from the team on favourable terms.

Otherwise there are a couple of future members of the X-Men introduced here in the form of fist the Banshee and later Lorna Dane (who doesn't take on a codename at this stage) but neither actually joins the team within this volume. However we do get a major shake-up in issue #42 when Professor X sacrifices his life to save the world, having been suffering from a terminal disease and rushing to get the team's training complete in time. This creates a new dynamic with Cyclops now in full command of the team, but it isn't explored too deeply at this point due to two multi-part tales involving Magneto and the temporary disbandment of the team on the orders of Fred Duncan, a federal agent Professor X had worked with, on the basis that they'll be more effective and less vulnerable if scattered across the country. This leads to a brief run of couple adventures but the format is soon abandoned in favour of having the whole team back together.

There are a few new villains introduced but they've rarely made much long-term impact. Amongst them are El Tigre, a hunter who is possessed by the Mayan god Kukulcán, the Cobalt Man, a scientist who is trying to copy Iron Man's armour and sell it to the military, Mekano, the neglected son of a philanthropist taking his revenge out on his father's donations, or the Frankenstein Monster, who here is portrayed as an alien who inspired the novel, but it's my understanding the later Monster of Frankenstein series used a different character closer to the original. There's Grotesk, an alien who wants to destroy the Earth, and finally Mesmero, a mesmeriser, and his minions the Demi-Men. The big foe across a dozen issues is the shadowy organisation "Factor Three". New characters introduced as part of the storyline include the Banshee, who turns good by the end of the storyline, the Ogre, who would later pop up in Thunderbolts, the shape-shifting Changeling, who would later become the basis of Morph in the 1990s X-Men cartoon, and the organisation's leader, the Mutant Master who turns out to be an alien.

That's not to say there aren't return appearances by old foes, with both the Juggernaut and Magneto popping up twice, with the latter having reassembled several of his followers in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants including the Toad, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Factor Three contains a number of old foes in the form of the Blob, the Vanisher, Mastermind and Unus the Untouchable. Foes from other series include the Puppet Master, following on from an encounter in Fantastic Four and the Super Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense, complete with the powers of Avengers Captain America, the Wasp, Goliath and Hawkeye. Another story brings an encounter with the underworld rulers the Mole Man, originally from Fantastic Four, and Tyrannus, from the Incredible Hulk, as they continue their conflict first shown in the Hulk's strip in Tales to Astonish. Yet another visitor from Fantastic Four is the living computer Quasimodo, working through the device Computo and using robots called "Cybertrons" (possibly the first use of that term by Marvel, nearly a decade before they created the backstory for the Transformers). An even further visitor from Fantastic Four is Blastaar, a deposed monarch from the Negative Zone. Then there's the Warlock, who had previously appeared under the name "Merlin" in Thor's strip in Journey into Mystery. Making his first Silver Age appearance is the Red Raven from the Golden Age Marvel series of the same name who has now become embittered against the human race.

Throughout these issues there are a lot of threads that get abandoned. At the start of the volume Jean Grey has been transferred to a normal university, but often comes back for weekends and her visits coincide with virtually all the adventures. However it's soon forgotten that she's been moved out and eventually she's just back at Xavier's school like all the others. Another thread involves her fellow university student Ted Rogers who seems to have worked out her identity, but he disappears along with her university days. Later the team disbands by order of federal agent Fred Duncan but after a few issues everyone's back to working together without any mention of the order. The origin stories also experience a slapdash approach when the Beast's story is given before the Angel's despite the internal chronology establishing the latter as having been recruited first (and the end of Iceman's story promised the Angel would be next). Even in the stories themselves captions notice the discrepancy and promise we'll get the Angel's story though we'll have to wait until volume 3 to see if that promise is met.

The origins back-up strip starts in issue #38 and shows in succession how Professor Xavier was spurred into action and steadily recruited the individual X-Men one by one, rescuing them from foes ranging from the Living Diamond to general hate mobs. The start of the series hadn't felt the need to cover this ground in detail, having contented itself with showing Marvel Girl as a new arrival to set the general scene, but now we get the background on Cyclops, Iceman and the Beast as we see how they handled the emergence of their powers and the reactions of those around them. The series also includes one part profile pieces for each of these X-Men, exploring their powers and abilities and answering details such as how Cyclops operates his visor without touching it or how Iceman produces so much ice.

Overall this run of the series feels rather flat, probably because what are meant to be the big dramatic moments often come off somewhat flat. Factor Three is the first example of an X-Men subplot that feels like it lasts forever and the ultimate pay-off isn't terribly interesting. Had the storyline appeared as a standalone then it would have been just about okay but here we get a lengthy build-up and the plot running in the background during other encounters, with Professor X kidnapped in the process and Spider-Man encountering one of the organisation's robots. When the storyline finally kicks into higher gear with a plot to start a nuclear war thought it soon becomes clear the Mutant Master's plan is not just to destroy human civilisation and allow mutants to take over the planet but instead to wipe out all life completely. Oddly despite being the big storyline built up to over so many months, this isn't the point at which Professor X is killed off. Instead he meets his end in a shorter story just three issues later which also sees a new foe trying to destroy the world. It just feels highly repetitive for the sake of it. The crossover with the Avengers also feels rather less than such a moment should be, especially considering how rare crossovers were back in the 1960s. It is at least based around the common link of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants once containing Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch before they became Avengers, with the siblings having now returned to Magneto in the hope of haling the Scarlet Witch's wounds and escaping from all human contact whilst Magneto plans new conquests. However it tries to do too much and is particularly let down by the middle X-Men issue detouring to introduce the Red Raven into the Silver Age. Roy Thomas's enthusiasm for the Golden and Atlas Ages heroes is well known and at times his work to reincorporate them into modern continuity has produced wonders. Here though it just provides a needless distraction as the Angel flies across the Atlantic to fetch help and ultimately as the story ends with the Raven going back into suspended animation it's a tale that just didn't need to be told at this point.

There's a bit of character development with Warren finally giving up on his attraction to Jean and subsequently being reunited with childhood friend Candy Southern, whilst Hank and Bobby face the recurring problem of their double dates with Vera and Zelda being interrupted by events that cause them to rush off and switch into costume. Towards the end of the volume Vera and Zelda disappear amidst the confusion of changing writers and the temporary disbandment of the team and by the end Bobby seems set to become an eventual item with Lorna Dane. Meanwhile Scott often seems to be getting closer to Jean but at times seems to muck it up by not always displaying enough outward concern for her. Still these are at least some steps forward.

However overall this is still a rather turgid run on the series and it's easy to see why the alarm bells were ringing by the end of it. Few of the individual stories really excite and it's also succumbing to a mess of new writers ignoring some of the subplots and developments set up by their predecessors. There are references to the overall problems mutants face in the world, particularly in the back-up origin stories, but very little is actually done with the theme beyond some villains expressing a general superiority viewpoint. Otherwise we're left with a team of heroes staggering on from one general threat to another and not really charting out any particularly new or exciting territory. This one is for completists.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Essential Iron Man volume 1

Monday sees the release of Iron Man 3 on DVD and Blu-ray. So it's a good time to take a look at his earliest adventures.

Essential Iron Man volume 1 contains the Iron Man strips from Tales of Suspense (another anthology series that later also featured Captain America) #39-72. All but one of the issues are at least plotted by Stan Lee who scripts most of them, with the debut issue scripted by Larry Lieber followed by seven scripted by "R. Burns" (Robert Bernstein) and a couple later on by "N. Korok" (Don Rico). Issue #68 is the Lee-less exception, written by Al Hartley. Most of the art is by Don Heck with three issues by Jack Kirby and two others by Steve Ditko. A bonus feature at the end highlights a couple of earlier versions of covers that were either used on different issues from the ones they seem to have been commissioned for or else which saw the villain's name changed, probably to comply with the Comics Code Authority.

Of all the main early Silver Age Marvel characters, Iron Man has long been one of my least favourites. I only seemed to pick up his series because of various crossovers and the "family" grouping of various titles and it often failed to inspire me. He was also absent from the main Avengers for some years when I started reading it. Perhaps it's because without the tragedy of Tony Stark's heart being kept going by a chestplate - and in those years he'd solved it with a transplant - and with his drinking problems largely conquered, what was left was a successful playboy businessman who had it all but suffered an obnoxious attitude. Now that may be a caricature but we are talking about the era of Force Works and the Crossing (I must have been one of the few readers of that latter saga whose biggest gripe was that Iron Man felt like an intruder on the current Avengers). However there must have been something that made the character popular in the first place and this volume was a revelation in showing what that was.

Who created Iron Man? It seems to be another case of multiple parties involved in coming up with the first issue and cover and most of them having bad memories. Jack Kirby drew the first cover and designed the armour; this seems to have predated the drawing of the actual strip which was entirely by Don Heck. Stan Lee came up with the plot but deadlines prevented him from scripting the issue. But all of that doesn't state for sure where the basic idea came from out of whatever conversations between whichever combination of Heck, Kirby or Lee. However Lee and Heck are the main forces on these early adventures, a rare series from the time without much involvement by Kirby or Steve Ditko. It's common to talk of Kirby and Lee as the Lennon and McCartney of Marvel comics. Does that make Ditko the George Harrison? Martin Goodman the Brian Epstein? (After all both Goodman and Epstein negotiated some terrible deals that paid the artists little.) And if such comparisons hold up, does this make Don Heck the Ringo Starr? Heck's artwork is often overlooked but he brings a clear distinctive style that manages to simultaneously show Iron Man's armour as big and tough but also dynamic enough to move and fight as needs be.

Has any Marvel Silver Age origin dated more than Iron Man's? It's relatively easy to fudge a minor detail in some of the others - the Fantastic Four could have any particular goal in space or the Hulk could be the product of weapons testing for any purpose (although replacing Communist agents with Skrull agents is perhaps not the best solution to one aspect) - whilst others are even more timeless - an arrogant surgeon trying to heal his hands by any means possible or a doctor discovering aliens and a magic weapon whilst on holiday just don't date at all. But Iron Man is different. It's hard to fudge away the jungle war Tony Stark is producing weapons for, or transform the Vietnamese guerrilla leader Wong-Chu into a non-Cold War figure. Later retellings have done what they can, but reading the original story it's much harder to filter out the dated elements. The story itself is straightforward though I do wonder why the North Vietnamese aren't monitoring Tony and Professor Yinsen more closely. It also shows a ruthless side to Iron Man that would be later toned down (give or take certain stories such as the Crossing) when he uses his oil and fire tools to ignite an explosives store and kill Wong-Chu. Now yes there is an armed conflict going on - I'm hesitant to use the term "war" for the United States's role during this period in Vietnam (early 1963) - but here we see the approach of a de facto soldier rather than the more traditional morality of a hero aided by a writer who usually finds some accident to permanently end such a foe.

However Iron Man's portrayal and personality is much more sympathetic than I was expecting. Tony Stark's life shown here focuses very much on his business and scientific concerns, with the playboy element rather sidelined, and the character is much more likable as a result. He may have his moments where he can appear dismissive or cruel to others, but we're never left in any doubt that this is because of his dedication to doing right as Iron Man and preserving his identity. But I do have to wonder if Stan Lee grew up being cruel to women as his well-meaning way of putting them off, as this is yet another series where the hero tries to discourage a woman's interest in him by pretending to be a nasty piece of works. It is repeatedly emphasised that Tony is trapped by the damage to his heart and reliant on his chest plate which could give out at any moment. When the strip began, the world's first heart transplant operation was over four years away and pacemaker technology was in its early stages. So it was credible that Tony had no real option but to rely on his chestplate to support his damaged heart (ignoring the science fiction and magic that meant the Marvel universe contains many healers who could have fixed it, though none appear here). Though the adventures were published in a time when comics were more chaste than now, the problem facing Tony if he ever wants to be intimate with somebody are all too clear.

After the first several issues feature no real supporting cast at all, issue #45 introduces the first two other significant cast members in the series - "Happy" Hogan and "Pepper" Potts. Happy Hogan is an ex-boxer who saves Tony's life when a racing car crashes, and is given a job as Tony's chauffeur. He rapidly proves quite loyal to Tony and is drawn to Pepper, but at first she has eyes elsewhere. Pepper Potts is another example of the working woman who falls for a man in her office, but is frankly rather cliched. In her first appearance on her first page she tells Happy of her attraction to Tony even though he doesn't know it "but some-day he will ... and then he'll give up all his actresses and debutantes... and I'll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!" By today's standards it's not exactly the best ambition to give the leading female character. It gets silly in one issue when she lies to Tony's date for the evening and pretends he's stood her up, in the hope he will take out Pepper instead. (He doesn't - he instead gives the tickets to Happy to take her.) Issue #50 sees her get a makeover in the hope of getting Tony to notice her. Is the message that a woman is only worth her looks? Pepper is freckled, a trait I share, yet her makeover includes covering them up. Again this is not the best message to send. We get a romance triangle between the three, a not uncommon arrangement, but on this occasion the hero feels he cannot have the woman and does what he can to push her Happy's way, even though it hurts him when he realises how much Happy means to Pepper. The volume ends with the situation reaching a climax when Happy, who has deduced Iron Man's identity, is nearly killed getting a vital weapon to him. Tony's absence and seeming disinterest upset Pepper and it seems she will finally choose Happy. The other main supporting cast member is Senator Byrd, presumably no relation to any real life Senators with that surname. A strong critic of Stark, he feels a playboy is unsuited for essential defence contracts and assumes the sabotage at the plants is the work of Stark himself, who may be a communist spy. A more minor character introduced at the end of the volume is Stephanie, the Countess De La Spiroza, one of Tony's many old flames who is angry at being stood up.

The early issues contain some surprising contradictions from other Marvel titles of the time. We get a character called Dr Strange - but he's a villain and no relation. We discover that Atlantis had sunk into the seabed and become an underground kingdom - rather than existing on the seabed as in the Fantastic Four stories. Maybe Robert Bernstein was Marvel's answer to Bob Haney, never letting continuity get in the way of a good story. Or maybe the concept of the Marvel Universe as an integrated whole didn't come together until a little later, and we're seeing the older pattern, more often associated with DC, of each individual series developing its own continuity and mythology without due regard for the rest of the line. Stan Lee's prolific scripting would have served to limit many of the differences (although he wasn't above forgetting individual points), but other scripters may have not felt bound to match series they weren't writing. The first sign of the wider Marvel Universe comes in issue #49, after Lee has taken over the full scripting, when we get a fight between Iron Man and the Angel of the X-Men with the rest of the team appearing. This is also the fist issue to reference Iron Man's membership of the Avengers. The first villains from another series to appear are the Chameleon and Kraven in the Hunter (both from the Amazing Spider-Man) in issue #58, followed by the Black Knight (from the Giant-Man strip in Tales to Astonish and also the Avengers), Attuma (from the Fantastic Four but also appearing in a number of other titles by now), Count Nefaria (from the Avengers) and the Mad Thinker (from the Fantastic Four).

But the series also debuts many new villains, though quite a few of them have been largely forgotten. Wong-Chu is generally only recalled for his role in the origin and others include Gargantus, the aforementioned Dr Strange, the Red Barbarian, the Actor, Kala Queen of the Netherworld (well actually an underworld), King Hatap the Mad Pharaoh, Mr Doll, the Phantom and Weasel Wills. But there's also the debut of several of Iron Man's better known foes including Jack Frost (although he would later adopt a different codename), the Crimson Dynamo (no less than two incarnations appear here), the Melter, the Mandarin, the Scarecrow, the Unicorn, Morgan Stark and the Titanium Man. We also get the first appearances of two villains who would soon switch sides. The Black Widow starts off as a femme fatale using her wits and looks to secure her objectives rather than an Emma Peel type female action agent, though after a year's worth of issues she undergoes intense training and becomes much closer to her more familiar modus operandi. Meanwhile Hawkeye begins life as an entertainer who is inspired to put his skills to other uses by seeing Iron Man, an origin detail shared with the Scarecrow, but on his first attempt to foil a crime he is mistake for an accomplice by the police and flees, then gets recruited as an ally by the Black Widow.

Amongst these foes there are a number of stock types seen in many other early Silver Age Marvel stories. Gargantus is a robot used by this series's set of aliens seeking to conquer Earth, and as with so many of their counterparts they decide again after assuming the hero they encounter is a typical example of the planet's inhabitants. The Actor is a master of disguise who can fool anybody, although he has more developed powers than the Chameleon did at the time. Kala is the ruler of a civilisation beneath the Earth's surface. Meanwhile the Mandarin conforms to a stereotype from broader fiction - the tall, specially skilled, evil Oriental criminal mastermind - at one point Iron Man even calls him an "imitation Fu Manchu". And he's not the first Marvel supervillain in this mould though I doubt many of the original audience could remember the Yellow Claw who had a very briefly lived series some seven years earlier. Another influence may be the Bond villain Dr No - both he and the Mandarin have half-Chinese, half-European parentage and, in the Bond novel at least, were raised by aunts. And, this time as in the film, the Mandarin is explicitly stated to be an independent operative with little care for the political conflict around him (though he's not adverse to working for hire for the Chinese Communists) so he has the potential to outlast the Cold War. There are indications that the Mandarin will become Iron Man's archenemy but at this stage he has to outlast a surprising competitor.

The origin story may have dated badly but so too has another aspect of this story. There is a lot of anti-Communism, on a scale far greater than just about any other Marvel series. Both the Soviet Union and China are behind a number of villains and there are many attempts made to neutralise either Tony and/or Iron Man. Maybe it was natural that a hero who is a successful businessman and weapons manufacturer would be the automatic counterpoint, but there's very little actual explanation as to what Communism actually is beyond a banner unifying the Soviets and Chinese. Occasionally the words "freedom" and "democracies" are used to describe the West but otherwise the Communists could frankly be just about any state declared the enemy of the day. Khruschev himself appears in the strip from time to time, although he's not explicitly named when appearing on panel but sometimes referred to or called "Comrade K" or "the 'Mr. Big' of the Iron Curtin". Was this a way of sidestepping legal action? Whatever the reason, the leading Communist is shown personally ordering actions against Stark and/or Iron Man, threatening the Black Widow's parents in order to bring her loyalties back in mind and worrying about any agents growing in popularity. Issue #64 demonstrates one danger of this approach as it appears to have been drawn before Khruschev's fall but was scripted afterwards and has to establish that the Black Widow was given her training and orders before the change in the Soviet leadership. Wisely Brezhnev is never shown after this.

How come almost nobody figures out Iron Man's identity? It isn't until issue #56 that it's established he has the role of Tony Stark's bodyguard. Before then Iron Man is presented as a friend of Tony's but he shows up all too quickly whenever the factory is attacked. Iron Man is very free with first person pronouns when speaking about Tony's property, but nobody picks up on this. Happy eventually guesses why Iron Man and Tony are never seen at the same time, a coincidence that eludes everyone else, but is wounded before he can explain just how he spotted it.

Overall I was surprised at how enjoyable this series is. It may be heavily dated with all the Communists and references to Vietnam, and I'd be fascinated to see how latter day retcons and reimaginings have tackled that problem, but the central character is a much more sympathetic and likeable person than he's been portrayed at times in later years. Nor does he come across like a Batman clone - they may both be rich playboy businessmen but very different aspects are emphasised and so Iron Man feels like a legitimate alternate take on the archetype rather than a knock-off. Don Heck has been unfairly neglected but this volume shows how good his work was and together with the writing the series holds up quite well today.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

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