Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Missing Essentials

At the moment the future of the Essential series seems uncertain after no new volume has so far been announced for next year. We've had lengthy gaps before so let's wait and see what the situation is. However there are still plenty I haven't reviewed yet so this blog will just keep going.

But what other series could and should be given at least a first volume? There are a good number of series not yet touched. Some are limited by various rights issues, others by problems of reproduction. But many series should be able to avoid those problems. Here's are seven series that could do with at least a first volume:

By far the most obvious omission is Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Originally launched in Strange Tales #135, the strip ran for the last thirty-four issues of that series and then in the great 1968 Marvel expansion it was given its own title which lasted for another fifteen issues. The whole run has been collected in three Masterworks editions and there are a few individual trade paperbacks. But it's amazing that it's never been touched by the Essentials, especially given Fury's current high profile in the various Marvel movies and the ongoing TV series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Then there's the Two-Gun Kid. The original Kid was the first of Marvel's western heroes with his own ongoing title in the 1940s & 1950s; however when the title was revived and revamped in 1962 the lead character was replaced, with the original being retconned away as being merely the star of a series of dime novels that the new Kid had read and been inspired by. (To add to the ignominy some of the original Kid's adventures were later modified and reprinted as though they starred the new Kid.) The main Marvel rival to the Rawhide Kid for popularity in this genre, it would be a pity to leave his adventures languishing.

Millie the Model. Since Marvel have delved into their Western and war comics, both genres that have heaily declined in relative popularity since their heyday, why not shine a bit of light on their soap and comedy offerings? Millie has unfortunately been the butt of many a joke over the last few decades but in her day she had an incredibly long lasting title that ran from the 1940s until the 1970s, surviving even when the Timely/Atlas/Marvel superheroes didn't. A collected edition would allow modern audiences a chance to see what her series was really like. After all, it worked for Dazzler.

Patsy Walker. Before she was Hellcat (hey that might work as a title), Patsy starred in her own teen soap titles that were Marvel's answer to the various Archie series, including both her original one and Patsy and Heddy. The exact relationship of these series with her later appearances varies a bit depending upon the writer (some treat them as her early years; others as another case of fiction-within-fiction, here written by her mother and actually a source of embarrassment to Patsy), but whatever the position in continuity a reprint of Patsy's stories would show one of the major Defenders in a very different environment.

The Champions. This is one of a number of series that have instead been collected in the colour Classic line though the volumes are now out of print, with some now commanding very high prices on the second seller market, and a Essential volume would help to bring the various series back to accessibility (and actually provide an answer to the question "Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?"). This odd team was reportedly largely constructed by ticking boxes and was contemporary to the All-New All Different X-Men revival. Based in Los Angeles, it consisted of the Black Widow, the Angel, Hercules, Iceman, Ghost Rider and, later on, Darkstar. They made their way through seventeen issues and spilled over into a few other series. It should be possible to assemble a slightly slender Essential volume.

The Invaders. This 1970s series took Marvel's biggest Golden Age heroes and teamed them together in a series set during the Second World War (their only contemporary teamings as the All-Winners Squad hadn't appeared until 1946). Consisting of Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Original Human Torch, plus a number of other heroes both from the time and latter-day creations, the team's creation reflected Roy Thomas's great fondness for the Golden Age and his work to add as much as possible to continuity as possible. The series has previously been collected in Classic volumes, but again many of those volumes are out of print and some are going for extreme prices.

Alpha Flight. Moving into the early 1980s, this series featured a team of Canadian heroes initially created as a one-off group for X-Men where they came to retrieve Wolverine for their government, but they proved successful enough to return multiple times and were eventually spun out into the first of a succession of titles in 1983, initially written and drawn by John Byrne. Coming from Canada, like their creator, they show a very different approach from the more traditional Marvel teams. Some of the earliest issues have been collected in the Classic line and once more suffer the same fate.

Let's hope the next new Essential volume comes soon and at least some of these series get some Essential attention.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Guest appearances omissions: The Human Fly #1

Let's have a quick look at one of Spider-Man's guest appearances that seems unlikely to be collected in the Essentials, or it seems any other collected edition any time soon, from the debut issue of The Human Fly. This was one of Marvel's oddest series, which stated it was based upon a real life person but there's uncertainty over how true this was and I don't think they did any promotional real life appearances.

The Human Fly #1, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Lee Elias

Quite a chunk of this issue is told in flashbacks, establishing the origin of the Human Fly (the victim of a car crash who had much of his skeleton rebuilt and who made an amazing recovery then took up daredevil stunts to give hope to the disabled) and some of his supporting crew. The main tale involves the hijacking of a plane full of press reporters arriving for the Human Fly's next show, including Peter Parker investigating whether the Human Fly has anything to do with a villain by the same name that Spider-Man once fought (there isn't and the villain has since generally been called just "the Fly"). The Human Fly is lowered onto the exterior of the flying jet and blasts his way in to overpower the hijackers; the resulting chaos allows Peter to slip into his Spider-Man costume and join the fight. The leader hijacker tries to flee with a rocket pack but the Human Fly grabs onto his leg and goes with him. The hijacker is knocked out but the Human Fly faces death until Spider-Man provides a webline and web-parachute to save his life. Spidey rushes back to the now landed plane to preserve his secret identity leaving the Human Fly to take the credit and give the reward to charity.

This is a fast paced issue that sets out the basics of the series quite well, but the guest appearance feels awkward and unnecessary. Whilst the similarity in names would have had to be addressed eventually, there was no need to tackle it straight away. Spider-Man's appearance isn't even mentioned on the cover so unless there was a big advertising campaign he was hardly being used as a sales booster. It also feels uneven that the title character has to be saved at the end and the lead villain gets away; neither of which is a good sign for a series. Spider-Man is written in character (Mantlo had recently finished a run on Marvel Team-Up and was just starting his first run on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man) but just doesn't need to be here.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1

For a special Christmas post I have decided to take a look at things over at the Distinguished Competition.

DC was initially sceptical about the Essential format but eventually in 2005 they decided to launch their own series of black & white sequential reprints on cheap paper under the title "Showcase Presents", recalling one of their classic series. The volumes are much the same as the Essentials albeit with a different cover design which seems to have influenced Marvel for its third cover format. Also Showcase Presents volumes have page numbers. But most significantly they're willing to jump about a bit more and collect material related to characters in a way few Essentials do (Essential Punisher volume 1 is a rare Marvel exception). DC have rapidly produced a very diverse set of volumes covering material from the Silver Age to the Modern Age.

Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1 pretty much does what it says on the tin. The Brave and the Bold had been first an anthology series and then a try-out book, which launched many characters and series including the Suicide Squad, the Justice League of America, the Silver Age Hawkman, the Teen Titans and Metamorpho. From issue #50 it became a team-up book, and then Batman gradually dominated until he was a permanent fixture from issue #74 onwards. This volume contains the Batman team-ups from issues #59, #64, #67-71 & #74-87. Everything is credited as written by Bob Haney apart from #87 by Mike Sekowsky. The art is by a mixture of Sekowsky, Neal Adams, Ross Andru, Win Mortimer and single issues by Ramona Fradon, Carmine Infantino, Johnny Craig, George Papp and Bob Brown. At least that's what the contents page says - this was an era when DC did not routinely credit its creators and so for many issues the credits have had to be constructed from incomplete records and guesswork.

The book was bimonthly and this volume covers the years from 1965 through to 1970, matching the rise and fall of Batmania thanks to the Batman TV series. In turn the three Showcase Presents volumes of the series so far saw print in the two years leading up to the launch of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold which drew its concept from here.

Who are the actual guest stars? Here's the list. Where relevant the characters are the Silver Age/Earth 1 versions (ignoring continuity issues that I'll discuss later).

59. Green Lantern
64. Eclipso
67. Flash
68. Metamorpho
69. Green Lantern
70. Hawkman
71. Green Arrow
74. Metal Men
75. Spectre
76. Plastic Man
77. Atom
78. Wonder Woman plus Batgirl
79. Deadman
80. Creeper
81. Flash
82. Aquaman
83. Teen Titans (consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Speedy)
84. Sgt. Rock
85. Green Arrow
86. Deadman
87. Wonder Woman

We have a broadly equal mix between the big name heroes of the day and the less well known. The biggest name missing is Superman, but that's because he and Batman had their own ongoing "buddy book" World's Finest. Otherwise amongst the Justice League's biggest names the only obvious absentee is the Martian Manhunter.

Note that although the concept of multiple Earths with different heroes of different origins had been established by this time, none of the stories invokes it. Consequently the Spectre and Plastic Man seen here must be either the best known versions from other Earths visiting Earth 1 without mentioning it or else they're little-known Earth 1 identical counterparts of those versions. (Or there's a more convoluted explanation to be found in later issues and/or guides.) The limited attention to continuity is on display in almost the first panel when Bruce Wayne thinks about how he's alone because Dick is on a school trip (later on there's regular reference to his being off with the Teen Titans as a way to keep him out of the stories) and Alfred is on vacation. Except that this issue came out at a time when Alfred had been seemingly killed off (he was subsequently revived, thanks to his inclusion in the television series) and also now living in the mansion was Dick's Aunt Harriet (who is quite famous from the television series but her somewhat different comic incarnation is one of the most forgotten of all Batman supporting characters). In itself this is a tiny thing but it shows a lax approach to continuity that would deliver some otherwise difficult to realise tales, but which would also cause no end of headscratching amongst fans. (On some other features it could be worse - the inclusion of Wonder Girl in the Teen Titans resulted in multiple retcons that tried to tidy up the problems this caused.) It's harder to spot continuity errors amongst the guest heroes, though the Metal Men's appearance in issue #74 has the oddity that Bob Haney's script only namechecks the traditional six members, and even gives that number in on panel, yet Ross Andru draws seven, including the little remembered "Nameless". Issue #84 makes perhaps the biggest assault on continuity through flashbacks to Bruce Wayne's work during the Second World War, showing him using the Batman identity twenty-five years earlier. Even in 1969 this made Batman much older than he is normally portrayed as (and I'm hard pressed to think of any actor who's played Batman in at least his mid forties bar Adam West returning to the role many years later in Legends of the Superheroes) and it I believe it had already been established he began his career much later, and it proves unnecessary as Sgt. Rock is shown alive and well in the present day, still serving in the US army, so there was no real need for a flashback to a wartime team-up. Especially as Rock and his Easy Company are rather incidental to the plot.

Covering a period of five years the series shows Batman in a period when he went from the height of the Campy Crusader of the mid-1960s to the re-emergence of the more serious Dark Knight at the end of the decade, though overall there's less variation in the character than one might expect. He may be the solid, serious know-it-all hero who can explain even the most obscure of information (such as what a hellgrammite is) similar to Adam West's portrayal but he doesn't veer off into self-parody or excessive silliness, with the exception of issue #68 when he's temporarily mutated into the "Bat-Hulk". Later on there are hints of the return towards the Dark Knight portrayal but the steps aren't too great. The arrival of Neal Adams on issue #79 sees the look of the series take a decisively darker edgier turn. By this point the Batman television series had been cancelled and Batman was now up for redefinition, though his main changes for the 1970s wouldn't come until Adams joined Denny O'Neil on the main series. In addition this volume also shows snapshots of other heroes going through major changes in this period. The first team-up with Deadman comes as the ghost hunts for his killer; the second comes after his killer has been found and killed and now the ghost continues his existence without clear purpose. Wonder Woman's first appearance is with her traditional appearance, powers and role, but the second is from the "New Wonder Woman" era when she had become a non-powered trouser-suited martial artist adventurer. Meanwhile Green Arrow's second appearance brings with it a revised look, toughened up for the hard edge adventures he would go on to have with Green Lantern.

Throughout these issues it's surprising just how often Batman's secret identity (and sometimes the guest hero's as well) is discovered, and the steps taken to undo this. In the very first adventure the Time Commander uses his powers to discover it and subsequently tells Green Lantern, but the latter then uses his ring to purge the information from both their minds, referencing an agreement amongst the Justice League. However later on Batman and Hawkman are completely familiar with each other's identities, and work together to fool the Collector, millionaire Balthazar T. Balthazar, who has used a computer to discover Batman is Bruce Wayne and reinforced the evidence with x-rays. But in the process of disabusing him of the notion, the Collector stumbles across Hawkman's own identity as Carter Hall. After double layers of confusion the Collector is left believing Hawkman is in fact an alien called Krog from the planet Mynos, whilst Batman is an ex-criminal who changed his name. Although not explicitly covered here, it would seem that at some stage the Justice League have agreed to share their identities since midway through the volume it becomes standard for Batman and his co-star to know who each other is. However this doesn't apply with some of the more detached characters such as the Creeper or for that matter Wonder Woman in her depowered days. In general Batman is already familiar with most of the characters he encounters, bar the really hard to interact with such as Deadman. An orphan boy living at stately Wayne Manor stumbles across the Batcave and immediately deduces its meaning. Orm the Ocean Master appears to know it when he sees Bruce Wayne apparently die and is subsequently surprised to see Batman is still alive. Later both Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen calmly tell mutual friend Edmond Cathcart their identities, rationalising that as a psychiatrist his professional oath will keep their secrets safe, and not anticipating the prospect that he might get captured, which he soon is. Fortunately they rescue him and the end of the issue sees him embark upon self-hypnosis to wipe the knowledge from his mind. I've no idea how reliable that is or just what the contemporary ethical opinion was.

The Justice League connection is the most common link that brings the guest stars into the story. Most adventures start off in Gotham City and on several occasions Batman calls in one of his fellow team members to provide specialised help. In general these are partnerships of equals with perhaps a little extra weight given to Batman as he's on his home turf, but there's no elevation of him to superstar status amongst the superhero community or grand clashes of egos. Rather the adventures take place on a more reasonable level.

The bulk of the foes seen in these adventures are unfamiliar to me. Most have been specifically created for these tales, and only a few would go on to appear elsewhere, though there are a handful who are drawn from the heroes' adventures. New foes include the likes of the Time Commander, Cosmo, the Queen Bee, the criminal organisation Cyclops, the Speed Boys, Balthazar T. Balthazar aka the Collector, ruthless businessman Tom Tallwolf, Dr. Daedalus, Shahn-Zi, the Molder and his Plastoids, the Cannoneer, Copperhead, the crimelord known as the King, the Hellgrammite, Carl Bork, oil thief Grantland Stark, Nazi war criminal Colonel Von Stauffen, businessman and crimelord  Miklos Minotaur and ruthless racing driver Willi Van Dort. There's also Lance Bruner, an orphan who Bruce Wayne's father agreed would be taken in at the manor in such circumstances but who turns out to have a criminal past. However when he sees Robin risk his life to save Batman, Lance has a change of heart and sacrifices his life to do the same. We're not shown how Bruce Wayne explained all this to the social worker. We get a few pre-existing foes such as Aquaman's enemy and brother, the Ocean Master, or Deadman's foes the Society of Assassins including their leader "Sensei". And we get a team of three of the best known of Batman's foes, the Riddler, the Penguin and the Joker.

In some places these tales do show their age. Issue #64 has an incredibly dated moment when Batman rescues a playgirl from risking her life needlessly and gives her a spanking for her actions. Despite this they become a brief item - yet another sign of a fast and loose approach to continuity, though this depiction of Batman is a far cry from the grim loner. Later on issue #78 sees Wonder Woman and Batgirl competing for Batman's affections and although it's only a ruse at first, the fact that such a contest could fool others says a lot about the way even two of DC's premiere female heroes are presented. And this only gets confirmed later in the story when they each briefly fall for Batman for real. However the portrayal of Native Americans in issue #71 is surprisingly more sophisticated than the norm, with little of the traditional broken English and a focus on a contest for the leadership of the tribe between two claimants who have both let the reservation and gone into white collar work. Elsewhere there are little nods to DC's main rivals - "Here's one I did before anybody, including a certain web-spinning Peter-come-lately!" declares Batman in issue #74 as he swings around a flagpole to hurl himself forward, taking a swipe at his rival in the process. It's a nice little aside that keeps the rivalry between companies playful.

Despite the apparent age of some of these stories, even more so than many contemporary Marvels, this is a petty good volume. Team-up titles are rarely the place to look for extensive character development but they offer a good chance to see two heroes working together on fairly equal terms and give an extensive tour of the many heroes of the DC universe. Batman may be reasonably restrained but he's nowhere near the grim brooding loner of later years and so it feels perfectly natural for him to be working with so many other heroes. This is the earliest team-up series featuring one regular character and a rotating second that I'm aware of, so here is the beginning of the path later followed by the likes of Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One and DC Comics Presents, let alone the fun animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

As for the Showcase Presents series in general, it's good to see the DC adopted the format and have run with it. Since Marvel began the Essentials nine years earlier it's unsurprising that by the time DC came along the basics had already been thrashed out such as using covers from the original comics, getting all the material in order, including annuals, and using a stirdy paper stock. The main areas where I think DC have done things sooner or better than Marvel is in using a cover design that leaves more space for the original artwork (although the yellow flash "Over 500 pages of comics" is annoying; fortunately that was later dropped) and in having individual page numbers which makes it easier to find a particular story; this is especially helpful when a volume is focused more on a character than on presenting a single series in sequential order. The Essentials have since adopted a similar cover design that shows more of the original artwork but not yet page numbers. We can only hope they one day do that as well.

Merry Christmas!

Seasons Greetings everybody!
Even Wolverine.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Essential Godzilla

The Christmas holidays are beginning and I remember many a classic monster movie being screened during them when I were a lad. So it's time for one of the greatest monster movie stars to step forward...

Essential Godzilla (and that's the full title - unlike other solitary volumes there's no "volume 1" in the name and even the cover replaces the usual number with a mini-Godzilla logo) contains all twenty-four issues of the late 1970s series Godzilla. Everything is written by Doug Moench and nearly all is drawn by Herb Trimpe bar a couple of fill-ins by Tom Sutton.

Godzilla himself is one of the most famous icons to come out of Japan, but this series dates from a particular period when the character's main new adventures were generated in the US. The last of the original films, Terror of Mechagodzilla (aka Counterattack of Mechagodzilla or The Terror of Godzilla) was released in Japan in 1975 and there was a break until 1984. In the meantime Godzilla's biggest steps forward came in this Marvel series and in a cartoon series that began in 1978 (and which was my first encounter with the monster when it was screened over here in the mid 1980s). They may have altered Godzilla to just breath fire and shoot laser beams from his eyes, and added his cute cousin as part of the seeming obligation to have a silly animal/kid character in all cartoons of the era (this was one year before the horror of... Scrappy-Doo) but it still gave Godzilla stature and dignity.

This series also has a cute kid who often annoys in the form of Robert Takiguchi. However he does more such as stealing the giant robot suit built to battle Godzilla and dubbing it "Red Ronin" in order to fight off the monster without it being harmed, and to protect it from others. Robert is often seemingly more concerned about preventing Godzilla from being harmed than any worry about the huge destruction he wreaks and lives he puts at risk, to the annoyance of others whom he sometimes endangers. Yet when the series ends it's Robert who ultimately saves the day, having won the monster's confidence. Robert is the grandson of Yuriko Takiguchi, who in times past was the sole dissenting scientist aboard a nuclear test ship which inadvertently awakened the monster in the first place, and later the sole survivor when Godzilla attacked the ship. He's less developed than his grandson and spends much of his screen time focused upon building a giant robot to counter Godzilla. His assistant, Tamara Hashioka, also appears but is again underdeveloped other than being the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo's affections. There are some hints about the tensions raised when a Chinese-American man and a Japanese woman fall for each other but the issue and the relationship aren't developed much and at the end of the series she breaks it off when the end of the threat of Godzilla means she and the Takiguchis will be returning to Japan.

The other regular characters are existing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, who in turn had been assembled from other series. "Dum-Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones had both originally appeared in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos but their present day counterparts were included in a modern day super spy outfit by the name of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division - yes I know that phrase doesn't make any sense which is presumably why it was later changed), headed by the now Colonel Nick Fury. Dum-Dum takes the lead in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s response to Godzilla and initially regards the creature as a hostile threat, though over time he is steadily won over to Gabriel's view that Godzilla is not malevolent but merely reacts out of provocation. The two moments when Godzilla actually saves Dum-Dum's life are seminal shifts in this debate. Bringing up the rear is Jimmy Woo, who originally appeared in the 1950s series The Yellow Claw as the Claw's main enemy, but who has again been revived in modern times as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. It's an interesting mix of characters to respond to the threat but most are underdeveloped and largely serve as window-dressing.

The real star of the series is the monster but he's not the most interactive of characters. A huge giant lizard from the dinosaur era with fiery radioactive breath, he's an impressive near unstoppable force of nature which ups the tension as S.H.I.E.L.D. and others race to stop him. But he's not the easiest character to relate to others - he never speaks and it's only towards the end that narrative captions start indicating what he's thinking. Otherwise we see the impact upon those around him. Perhaps in order to solve the problems of his size, issue #17 sees S.H.I.E.L.D. deploy Henry Pym's shrinking gas upon the lizard and the next few issues feature a much smaller Godzilla as the gas slowly wears off, allowing much greater interaction whether with humans or with Devil Dinosaur. It does lead to the odd moment when Robert Takiguchi finds a human sized Godzilla and persuades him to wear a hat and raincoat to disguise him. Somehow I just don't think the King of the Monsters would ever go in for such a move. Fortunately he's back to his rightful size by the end of the series.

Over the course of the series many try to stop him whilst others seek to use him for their own ends. As a result Godzilla goes on a journey that starts in Alaska and works his way down the west coast of the United States (omitting Canada in the process) and then heads into the interior, eventually ending up in New York. However along the way his journey takes in some interesting detours including a villain's lair in the Aleutian Islands whilst detouring between San Francisco and San Diego, or a trip to the Moon where he's conscripted to fight in an inter-planetary war (although his actual battle is fought back on Earth) and then finally his visit to New York is interrupted by a trip back in time hundreds of millions of years to the Mesozoic Era "900 million years" in the past (it was actually about 252 to 66 million years ago but I doubt Godzilla was counting) where he ends up in the land of Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy.

Throughout his journey Godzilla comes across many beings, some of whom try to stop him, others seek to use him for their own ends. Early on his appearance in San Francisco draws the attention of a reduced team of Champions - here consisting just of the Black Widow, Hercules, Ice-Man and the Angel. They battle the monster but keep getting in the way of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s efforts. Still we get some classic Hercules moments such as when he proves strong enough to tip Godzilla over and later when he throws a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge at the monster, who ducks, and instead the makeshift missile downs the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Soon afterwards we get the first in a succession of other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, picking up on one of the most common themes of his movies. We also get the first appearance of Dr Demonicus, the first villain who tries to use Godzilla for his own ends. Meanwhile Dr Takiguchi has developed a giant robot operated by thought to be used against Godzilla, but in one of the sillier moments of the series it's his grandson who sneaks into the robot and operates it. Then comes an encounter with Yetrigar, a Sasquatch mutated to enormous size by radiation. The interplanetary war sees Godzilla fighting for the Betans against three monsters sent by the Megans - Triax, Rhiahn and Krollar. The battle is long and fierce, with both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Red Ronin intervening unaware of the greater significance of their fight, but eventually Godzilla overcomes all three monsters and as a result the Megans sue for peace. On a more mundane level is a modern western as Godzilla wanders onto ranches and is believed to be eating cattle, but in fact he helps expose the real rustlers and pushes the ring leader to his death.

Once reduced in size, Godzilla starts fighting at a different scale, beginning with a sewer rat. Subsequently he battles the Fantastic Four, who send him back in time but his radiation affects the time machine. After teaming up with Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy against the Lizard Warriors of the past, a full-size Godzilla is catapulted back through time for a final showdown in New York. The Avengers join the fray but to little avail, whilst Spider-Man gets a one page cameo in the penultimate page of the very last issue as he swings up to get a poor photograph. In the meantime Godzilla has wandered through New York causing terror and having a hilarious encounter with J. Jonah Jameson at the latter's office. Finally with the licence expiring Godzilla is persuaded to return to the ocean where he will no longer be harmed.

Godzilla isn't the most in-depth series Marvel has ever published, and it was printed during a period when Marvel comics were only seventeen pages long so there often isn't much time in an individual issue to flesh things out, though presenting the whole series as a clear continuous narrative with each issue following on directly from the previous one helps. The series does take some odd turns such as the trip to space which came at a time when just about everybody was rushing to jump onto the Star Wars bandwagon, whilst the issues with Godzilla at human size and fist-fighting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents just feel odd and wrong. The conclusion to the series is a little hurried, as though the axe came down quite late in the day, and it's never established just how a prehistoric monster that has spent much of its time since its revival in Japan can understand English well enough to know all it has to do to be left alone is to walk into the sea.

This series reflects the origins in the monster movie genre where the main emphasis is on action rather than in-depth characterisation. But here the subject material allows it to work. It's not the most essential Essential by any means, and as the volume is now out of print (and Marvel may no longer hold a licence to reprint it again - Toho are very protective of their creation and doubtlessly don't give out open-ended licences) it's not worth paying through the nose for it. But if you can find it at a decent price or in a library, it's an enjoyable quick read that generally captures the spirit of the character and his usual adventures.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Omitted material: Marvel Fanfare: Strange Tales

Marvel Fanfare was one of Marvel's earliest prestigious series. Printed on high quality glossy paper and distributed only in the direct market at a high price (US $1.25 in 1982 when regular Marvels cost US $0.60) it was an anthology that featured stand alone tales by many of Marvel's top talent on characters they didn't normally work on. Naturally it contained Spider-Man stories from time to time, and he appeared on the cover of the first issue, recoloured and reused as the cover of the collected edition Marvel Fanfare: Strange Tales. Although this collection has a stand-alone title and no volume number, in all other regards it's in the standard Classic format, containing the first seven issues of the series including three Spider-Man strips.

Marvel Fanfare #1-2 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Michael Golden

This story sees Peter Parker sent by Jonah as part of an expedition to the Savage Land alongside the Angel and Tanya Anderssen, the childhood sweetheart of Karl Lykos, the man who became Sauron after being infected when saving her from pteranodons. There they discover a plot by a group of neo-mutants to conquer the Savage Land using a device that can devolve beings to their primordial beings. Both the Angel and Spider-Man are devolved, Spidey into a giant spider creature, but they are saved by Ka-Zar and Karl, the latter who absorbs the devolver's energy into himself, restoring them but transforming himself permanently into Sauron. Peter and the Angel head home whilst Tanya stays to find a way to cure or destroy Sauron.

This story feels as though it was conceived as an issue of Marvel Team-Up and left over when Claremont's run there ended. Spider-Man is rather redundant to the overall plot which is focused heavily on Tanya and the Angel. Peter worries at first about his identity being discovered if he uses his powers, yet later on the monster in a tattered Spider-Man costume is un-devolved back into him and nobody seems to even comment on how blatant a give-away this is. The storyline continues into issues #3 & #4 featuring the X-Men, both written by Claremont and drawn by Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith respectively. Sauron now leads the neo-mutants who are ultimately all defeated and devolved back into the swamp savages they originally were. Overall this second half is just an okay X-Men tale but the first half is a very poor Spider-Man story bar the scene where Peter manages to regain some control of the monstrous form and begs Ka-Zar to kill him.

Marvel Fanfare #6, written by Mike W. Barr and drawn/co-plotted by Sandy Plunkett

Once again we get a Marvel Team-Up style story, and this time it's a sequel to issue #21. Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch are captured and brought to a mystical dimension by the wizard Xandu who has now found the Wand of Watoomb and now uses it to revive his wife Melinda's body but can't bring his spirit back. So he transplants the Scarlet Witch's soul over and plans to make her his wife anew, whilst toying with Spider-Man for revenge. However Melinda's spirit returns and drives Xandu insane, giving Spider-Man the chance to knock him down and take the Wand. Spider-Man, the Scarlet Witch and Melinda all return to Earth via the Wand.

This story again feels like its more natural home would be in another title but it's surprisingly well constructed with Spider-Man in a key role. The art feels rather Ditko-esque at a time when nearly every rendition of Spider-Man followed Romita, whilst the story may take the character out of his comfort zone but no further than many other team-ups.

Other stories contained in this volume include:
  • A Daredevil tale written by Roger McKenzie and drawn by Paul Smith (#1)
  • A Mr Fantastic story written by Roger McKenzie and drawn by Trevor von Eeden (#2)
  • A Hawkeye adventure written by Charlie Boatner and drawn by Trevor von Eeden (#3)
  • A Deathlok tale written by David Anthony Kraft and drawn by Michael Golden (#4)
  • An Iron Man story written by David Winn & David Michelinie and drawn by Michael Golden (#4)
  • A Doctor Strange adventure written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Marshall Rogers (#5)
  • A Captain America tale written by Roger McKenzie and drawn/co-plotted by Luke McDonnell (#5)
  • Another Doctor Strange story, this time written by Roger Stern and drawn by Charles Vess (#6)
  • An Incredible Hulk adventure written by Steven Grant and drawn by Joe Barney (#7)
  • Another Daredevil tale, on this occasion written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by George Freeman (#7)
...and each issue contains a single page "Editori-Al" written & drawn by editor Al Milgrom as he talks to the readers about the series and the creators working on it.

Overall the impact of the series is rather lost in collected editions. At the time this was a very expensive series on high quality paper with work by some of the industry's top talent, but three decades on and most of the creator's stars have passed whilst the paper used here is standard and it costs about the same as similar sized tradepaperbacks. But the stories themselves are generally very good and it's amazing that such a series worked so well despite the factors being against it.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Essential Daredevil volume 6

Essential Daredevil volume 6 contains Daredevil #126-146 and Annual #4 plus the crossover issues Iron Man #88-89 and Ghost Rider #20 and also an excerpt from Ghost Rider #19. Most of the volume is written by Marv Wolfman, including the full Ghost Rider issue, who also plots the annual. The other issues are plotted and/or scripted by Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter and Gerry Conway, with the annual scripted by Chris Claremont, the Iron Man issues written by Archie Goodwin and the Ghost Rider excerpt scripted by Tony Isabella, co-plotting with Jim Shooter. Half the issues are drawn by Bob Brown; others are by John Buscema, John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Gil Kane, Lee Elias and George Tuska, with Tuska handling the annual and Iron Man issues whilst the Ghost Rider excerpt is drawn by Frank Robbins and the full issue by John Byrne. Because that's a long list, the creator labels have been placed in a separate post.

(To try to clear up confusion and concern, the annual included here is the first of two separate Daredevil Annuals to carry the number "4". There were no further annuals between 1976 and 1989, when that year's offering, a part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover, would use the same number, but then the 1990 annual, from the "Lifeform" crossover, would correct the numbering to #6. This may be the first time a Marvel series did such a thing, over a decade before some of the highest numbers were restored - albeit only temporarily it sadly now seems - after being thrown away for the sake of brief sales boosts. A number of guides have renumbered the 1989 annual to #5, and we await a much later Essential volume to see if Marvel will follow suit, but that number never appeared on an issue.)

It's an unfortunate problem for the series that it took an incredibly long time to find a clear niche and stick to it. Part of the problem is that up to and including these issues no writer had stayed on the series for more than a few years since Stan Lee. As a result Daredevil has wandered back and forth across the continent and the world, with supporting cast members drifting in and out as different writers keep altering the basics in a search for a clear identity. Here it seems Marv Wolfman is trying for a Marvel version of the not-too-gritty Batman, producing a somewhat generic wisecracking hero who swings through a variety of scenarios. The comparison is reinforced by one of the most prolonged, serious and devious plots yet carried out by the Jester.

Normally the Jester can be dismissed as one of the sillier members of Daredevil's rogues' gallery, and there are quite a few foes who fall at that end, but here we get a concerted effort to toughen him up. There's a new costume and a new focus - he's operating a scheme of disinformation, using an advanced (for the time) computer to generate artificial footage for bogus news reports and political campaigns, then tapping into television transmissions in order to spread the lies to a gullible public who rapidly swallow them. With a lot of falsehoods spread such as the Kennedy brothers were never assassinated or the Vietnam War was all staged, the result is a public that comes to distrust what it's told even more than ever (this story came at a time not long after Watergate and when distrust of the Warren Commission was at such heights that a Congressional enquiry was soon ordered). Eventually Daredevil defeats the Jester but not before the latter has succeeded in one very personal goal - after failing to derail Foggy Nelson's original campaign to be elected District Attorney, he's now managed to bring down Nelson at the re-election stage thanks to a series of attack adverts that make the DA look a complete fool.

Foggy takes his defeat surprisingly well, declining to bring any legal challenge over the Jester's interference, and instead returns to private practice, accepting a partnership with Matt once more in running "the Storefront" which brings legal advice and services to those who need them, not those who can afford them. It's a move that in one way restores something of the original series dynamic yet at the same time it doesn't simply recreate the Lee era office. Foggy's replacement as District Attorney is Blake Tower, who would go on to appear in a number of different Marvel titles over the next few years. Here he proves surprisingly likeable and rapidly becomes a strong ally in authority for Daredevl. This contrasts strongly with police Lieutenant Bert Rose who repeatedly blasts and clashes with Daredevil, having no liking for the scarlet swashbuckler. However Daredevil does gain another key ally in the form of hard edged Daily Bugle reporter Jacob Conover.

But by far the most significant character introduced is Heather Glenn, the previous occupant of Matt's new home. At first Heather seems rather shallow - a soft, needy, clingy woman who almost throws herself upon Matt. Okay Matt isn't always the most enlightened of 1970s men but he proves surprisingly receptive to Heather's advances and the two soon become an item. However with her comes a mystery as investigations into a slum landlord leads back to her father's company, with strong hints that he is personally involved in money laundering and other activities surrounding it. But this plotline drags on throughout many issues, outlasting Wolfman as writer, and isn't resolved in this volume. Nor is the mystery of the kidnapping of Foggy's fiancée Debbie Harris, who amazingly doesn't appear at all until several issues after her kidnapping is first mentioned. There are attempts on Foggy's life and hints that the trail also leads back to Maxwell Glenn but it remains unsettled at the end of this volume.

In the meantime Daredevil may have launched a recurrent character like Blake Tower onto the wider Marvel universe but there aren't too many imports from other series in these issues. Within the regular Daredevil issues the only villains visiting from another series are the Chameleon and the Beetle. The guest stars are limited to the Black Panther and Namor the Sub-Mariner in the annual and the crossover with Ghost Rider. Meanwhile the Iron Man issues included in this volume feel suspiciously like they were included purely to make up the page count. Apart from a mention in Daredevil #139 as Ol' Hornhead recounts his recent team-ups, they make no impact at all on the regular series and could easily have been left out without being noticed. Daredevil doesn't even appear until the second issue where he gets dragged into fighting the alien Blood Brothers in New York despite being in a rush to head to Los Angeles in response to Karen's kidnapping.

The Ghost Rider crossover is more convincing, as it provides a final conclusion (for now) to the story of Matt Murdock and Karen Page, and completes the process of transferring her to the pages of Ghost Rider with all outstanding ties settled. However the presentation isn't the best as the excerpt from Ghost Rider #19 - a mere two page prologue for the crossover that's almost a mini-story in its own and thus detachable from the rest of the issue - shows Karen being kidnapped but it is here placed after Matt has learnt this at the end of Daredevil #137 and also after the Iron Man issues in which he's preparing to head west to rescue her. But this aside the story flows well, undoubtedly helped by both halves having the same writer and guest artist, allowing for tight continuity and the issues to be swapped around if schedules forced it at the last moment.

Meanwhile the regular series makes use of a number of old villains, particularly the Jester and the Owl, whilst also adding a tiny handful of few ones. We get a new version of the Torpedo who stumbles into the role by accident, plus Brother Zed, a practitioner of Voodoo dressed as a skeleton who rides the wave of interest in Voodoo that was raging at the time. The annual sees a fight with an extortionist who gets caught in an explosion and transformed into the Mind Master, who is rapidly overcome. But by far the biggest first appearance is that of Bullseye, who debuts in a two-part tale whose opening part (#131) lends its cover to the volume as a whole. Apart from the oversized target on his costume's forehead that would subsequently be scaled down, he's exactly as he would be for years to come - a highly skilled marksman who can use any object to hit any target with deadly accuracy. Only Daredevil's radar sense seems able to predict that target. However he does have the odd silly moment when in his return appearance he straps Daredevil to a giant crossbow bolt and fires it at cliffs. Such an idea, and the cliffhanger it creates at the end of issue #141, feels more at home in an episode of the 1960s Batman TV series. But maybe I've just been too influenced by subsequent uses of Bullseye that have kept him firmly on the gritty, serious side of Daredevil's rogues' gallery. Still he clearly made his mark at the time with three separate appearances in the space of just sixteen issues.

As well as the villains there are also a couple of other notable characters added but neither really fits the series or lasts. One of the oddest people to appear in the series is the Sky-Walker - who uses that name a year and a half before the release of Star Wars. He has the strange power to generate blocks of light energy and walk on them. He appears to have originated on Earth centuries ago but grown up on a different planet to which he's now attempting to return. This description along should indicate how he's an example of how science fiction elements often just don't work in Daredevil, even if the series hasn't yet found a long-lasting distinctive niche. Another oddity comes in an appearance by Uri Geller, who is presented as though his telepathic and telekinetic powers are real, allowing him to locate foes and bend metal with his mind. Although his appearance was probably a co-ordinated publicity drive for whatever reason, once again he just doesn't feel like the sort of character who naturally fits into the series as it is in this period.

Marv Wolfman's run finishes near the end of this volume and so once again a writer has moulded the series into a new direction only to head off before it can really set things down for the long run. Although the last three issues seem to continue on the lines he set down, that's possibly only because of the split plotting and scripting between Gerry Conway and Jim Shooter, showing the title treading a little water before the next permanent writer comes along. Such chopping and changing on a series just isn't healthy in the long run and so it's unsurprising that we have yet another forgotten era as the character and series continue the quest for a permanent distinctive niche.

That's not to say that this volume is at fault in itself. There are clear attempts to get a strong identity set down with a mixture of old and new characters, some character development and ongoing storylines that offer mysteries. And the new villains may be thin on the ground but the ones who are introduced include Daredevil's greatest physical nemesis, a sign of quality over quantity. However some of the mysteries wind up lasting rather longer than they really need to, especially when some issues barely advance them at all, and two are still unsolved when the volume comes to an end. Given that we've only had two new volumes of Essential Daredevil in the last six years, then, even leaving aside the current uncertainty about the future of the Essential programme overall, it seems likely that we won't be seeing these plotlines resolved anytime soon. But aside from that this is quite a good volume with sustained strong writing and good artwork, showing Daredevil as he developed in the last years before he really hit the big time.

Essential Daredevil volume 6 - creator labels

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

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A few Sub-Mariner previews

Whenever I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and character I intend to take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. Other than the Spider-Man and Daredevil titles, Sub-Mariner is the first such series that qualifies, as there is just one solitary volume out so far.

Sub-Mariner #20 written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema, reprinted slightly abridged in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1, reprinted in turn in Essential Super-Villain Team-Up volume 1

It's my understanding that the abridgement consists of panels in adjacent pages amounting to the equivalent of one whole page. It doesn't seem to have affected readability. This is a fairly straightforward tale in which Namor, who has lost both his power of flight and the ability to breathe underwater, flees though New York until he stumbles upon the Latverian embassy where Dr. Doom tries to recruit him as an ally, first by persuasion and then by coercion. It's easy to forget that there was a time when Namor rivalled Doom as the Fantastic Four's greatest foe and the two briefly allied. However they have each gone a long way since and this issue shows how far apart they now are, with a renewed alliance well and truly off the cards. The issue is very much a character piece as it shows the different outlooks and approaches of the two. Ironically it was reprinted at the start of Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up despite being a strong indicator as to why a permanent teaming of the two can never work. Doom attempted to overcome the problems, but the story wound up as a premature obituary for that series.

Sub-Mariner #22 written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Marie Severin, reprinted in Essential Doctor Strange volume 2 and also in Essential Defenders volume 1

This was the middle part of a storyline run across Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk, wrapping up the leftover threads from Doctor Strange's series. Namor returns to Atlantis where his ability to breathe is restored but then he gets summoned to Boston by Doctor Strange to help in the struggle against the Undying Ones. The crossover is structured reasonably well so that it's possible to just read this issue by itself, but other than the opening scenes in Atlantis this does feel much more like a Doctor Strange issue than a Sub-Mariner one. As a key issue in restoring the title hero's abilities it probably shouldn't have been combined with a wider crossover; an approach that was unfortunately used all too often in later years. There's the start of a strong understanding between Namor and Doctor Strange that would come to the forefront in the Defenders, but as yet no hint of any regular teaming between them.

Sub-Mariner #34-35 written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 1

These two issues see Namor in search of allies to neutralise a human device that accidentally  threatens the world. In recruiting the Hulk they come into conflict with the military forces of San Pablo, yet another Latin American military dictatorship. Their battle devastates the military forces such that rebels are able to overthrow El General. Then the group, dubbed "Titans Three", head to the island where the device is along with Dorma and the Atlantean scientist Ikthon. Titans Three clash with both the army guarding the device and a squad of Avengers sent in, until Ikthon repairs a flaw and everyone realises the danger that has been averted. These two issues were clearly testing the water for the concept that became the Defenders and show how Namor can assemble some allies when needs be but his confrontational approach isn't always the ideal solution. I find Latin American military dictatorships an excessively used cliché in Marvel comics from this era, especially when they come with rebels seeking to overthrow them. Titans Three is an interesting idea for a team made out of hot-headed loners often at odds with the human world, but such character types are inevitably not team players and some additional unifying element is needed if the group is to work on a regular basis.

By coincidence these issues between them show Namor interacting with nearly all the characters he's best known for teaming up with; the main exception is Captain America. (His interaction with the Fantastic Four over the years is rather more complicated.) There are signs of just how prickly he can be but also how well he works with those he respects and/or needs. Otherwise the issues show glimpses of wider developments in the series such as his temporary power restriction or steps towards marriage to Dorma, and wet the appetite for another Essential Sub-Mariner volume.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Essential Sub-Mariner volume 1

Essential Sub-Mariner volume 1 contains the Sub-Mariner strips from Tales to Astonish (the anthology that also featured the Hulk and previously featured Ant-Man/Giant Man) #70-101, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1, a rare one-shot anthology that came amidst a glut of new title launches, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner #1, the resulting first issue, plus also Daredevil #7 with a guest appearance and the Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense #80 as part of a crossover; another crossover comes within the pages of Tales to Astonish itself when the Sub-Mariner and Hulk strips converge in issue #100. Bonus material includes the original cover art from issue #88, original interior art from issues #94 & #96, the cover of Tales of Suspense #79 (which features Namor prominently on the cover but only on one interior page) and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Atlantis, Atlanteans and the Sub-Mariner.

Nearly everything up to issue #92 (including the Daredevil and Tales of Suspense issues) is written by Stan Lee bar #82 where his plot is scripted by Roy Thomas. Thomas writes most of the rest of the material apart from one issue by Raymond Marais (a name no-one seems to know anything about) who co-writes another with Thomas, and the last couple of Astonishes are written by the brief return of Lee then Archie Goodwin. The art is mainly by Gene Colan, who also does the Daredevil and Tales of Suspense issues and later by Namor's creator Bill Everett, with contributions by Jack Kirby, Jerry Grandenetti, Dan Adkins, Werner Roth and Marie Severin. John Buscema draws the first issue of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Once again that's a long list of labels so a separate post has been created for the creators.

The Sub-Mariner's arrival in the Essentials was surprisingly late, coming in 2009. Amongst other Silver Age superhero features, only Captain Marvel had anywhere near as long a delay before getting a first volume. Perhaps this was down to the availability of remastered material - the first Sub-Mariner Masterworks didn't appear until 2002 and the rest of the material in this volume wasn't collected there until 2007. Or it could be down to the perception that the Sub-Mariner doesn't sell well - none of his series have ever made it past a hundred issues (although if we add the Tales to Astonish issues to his 1968 series they just scrape over that line) whilst in the late 1990s he took over the second series of Marvel Team-Up from Spider-Man, only for that title to end after just four issues of him. Whatever the reason, the result was that this volume was much wanted and anticipated. It doesn't disappoint.

At its core this is a series about a monarch whose kingdom faces threats from both without and within. Atlantis is a small kingdom in a remote part of the world - the depths of the ocean - but it contains ambitious royals and military leaders, whilst its location and obscurity often result in accidental damage being caused by the humans on the surface, leading to tension and conflict. Namor is a just and generally merciful ruler, but prone to moments of temper that cause him to lash out in anger either when he believes he has been betrayed below the sea or else when he assumes the humans have attacked his kingdom. Most of the issues in this volume are parts of multi-issue stories that often flow from one to the next, providing a strong continuous flow as Namor seeks security and vengeance against the various threats to his kingdom.

The most recurrent foe is Warlord Krang (he actually has that title), an Atlantean general who seizes power in a coup at the start and then after he is toppled he is sent into exile and plots anew. Like several of the foes seen here, he originated in the pages of Fantastic Four. Another from there who threatens Atlantis is the external warlord Attuma and his army of barbarians, whilst from Daredevil comes the Plunderer, a would-be world conqueror and the brother of Ka-Zar. Meanwhile Namor has another rival for the throne, namely Byrrah, who is described as both Namor's "cousin" and the stepson of the old Emperor, who was Namor's grandfather. Either Atlantean society uses the terms for relatives differently (which seems unlikely for the era, especially as the point is never specifically addressed) or someone goofed. Byrrah had previously appeared in the brief 1953-4 revival of the Sub-Mariner, and is described as being from the "Golden Past"/"Golden Age" of Marvel. I wonder just when the term "Golden Age of Comics" was nailed down to finishing no later than 1949/50. The pre-Silver Age is also addressed at the end of the volume with the debut of Destiny, a foe that Namor has forgotten (though he had never appeared before). On top of all this there are also a variety of sea monsters such as the Seaweed Man or the Faceless Ones and their leader Zantor, the Diamonds of Doom. Or there are the artificial creations like the Behemoth, a monster created to protect Atlantis from attacks but which gets out of control, the fire creature on Inferno Island, "It", a humanoid revived by the dumping of radioactive waste, or Dragorr, apparently the ruler of a Caribbean island nation but actually a robotic exo-skeleton controlled by his "adviser" the Gnome. Other foes from other series include the Puppet Master, once again from the pages of Fantastic Four, and the original Number One of the Secret Empire, from the Hulk's strip in the other half of Tales to Astonish. But it's the underwater foes Krang, Attuma and Byrrah who stand out the most.

After his reintroduction, Byrrah rapidly becomes a rival to the throne, which appears to be semi-elective through the people demanding a "plebiscite" which will mean a new "election". I wonder if Stan Lee actually knew a great deal about how monarchies operate - it's true that in times past some were elective to a degree, but by the second half of the twentieth century it became standard in much of the west to distinguish between "monarchies" as states where the headship passes by heredity and "republics" as states where the headship is selected on someone's consideration of the individual (whether that's the population as a whole considering the merits or a military officer personally considering themself to take power). "Plebiscites" (or referendums) on monarchies tend to be about their continuation or restoration rather than choosing between competing contenders and/or their lines. Just to add to the confusion, Byrrah's reign is undone when Dorma discovers he has used a hypnosis ray to win over the people and she cancels the effect, with the result the Atlanteans quickly see Byrrah as an impostor without any talk of new plebiscites. Did Dorma sneakily hypnotise them in the other direction, did the Atlanteans forget anything that happened whilst they were hypnotised or did they immediately realise what had happened and automatically dismiss the change as illegitimate? There's no such implication of constitutionality at all when Krang deposes Namor earlier in the volume and instead Namor has to embark upon a quest to find Neptune's Trident to prove he is the rightful heir to the throne. Strange people lying in water distributing weapons is... an interesting basis for a system of government and when Byrrah makes his take-over or even later when the Atlanteans mistakenly believe Namor has betrayed them and exile him, his recovery of the trident isn't mentioned at all.

The guest cast is limited with the most prominent member being the Lady Dorma, Namor's childhood companion and main romantic interest though their relationship is turbulent, not least when Krang forces Dorma to agree to marry him in exchange for saving Namor's life (a lie as Namor has already survived). Dorma had appeared in Sub-Mariner stories since the 1930s but only really rises to prominence here. During Namor's quest for the trident he is aided by an elder of Atlantis called Vashti who risks his all to support the former king's restoration; in gratitude Namor appoints him as his Grand Vizier and he appears through the rest of the run. Beyond these two, Krang and Byrrah, the Atlanteans aren't focused on regularly and there are no other notable recurrent characters.

But there's one feature about Atlantis that surprises me and that is that whenever we see the kingdom itself it doesn't look as though everyone is at the bottom of an ocean. There's the odd ripple effect on panels and the occasional fish, but the Atlanteans walk about as though they were on land, wearing clothes that would be suitable on land - Namor moving about in just his swimming trunks is very much the exception - including capes that flow freely. Namor can fly and often his movements through the seas are drawn as though he is in flight rather than swimming. And he rarely looks wet when he emerges above water. It's not just the people and their clothes either - when Atlantis is damaged, as it is several times in various locations in this run, the rubble tends to fall as if it were in air not water. Still none of this detracts from the excitement in the various battles, especially with other Marvel characters.

In spite of the growing interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe in this era, Namor's own series surprisingly limits encounters with other heroes to crossovers. The volume kicks off with Daredevil #7 (incidentally the issue where Daredevil changes his costume to the more familiar red outfit) in which Namor goes searching for lawyers to settle the grievances of Atlantis through peaceful channels, but the effort fails and he clashes with Daredevil before returning to his kingdom to face down an attempted coup. Later on he is pursuing Krang and Dorma and in the process clashes with Iron Man in "When fall the Mighty" which, according to The (Almost) Complete Marvel Crossover Guide, appears to be the very first Marvel crossover where a story was told in more than one title. Finally near the end of the volume whilst in exile once more, Namor considers the Hulk as a potential ally, but the Puppet Master takes control of the Green Goliath and the result is an extended fight that is a rare crossover within a single series as both characters' strips are fused to tell the extended story.

But curiously there are two notable omissions amongst the guest stars. The only appearance of the Fantastic Four is limited to a flashback in Sub-Mariner #1 when Namor's origin and history are recounted, whilst Captain America, the other major Marvel Golden Age hero revived in the Silver Age, makes no appearance at all. Namor spent the early years of the Silver Age largely around the Fantastic Four so it was a bold move for this series to keep away from rehashing what had gone before. However a couple of big continuity questions had been raised by Fantastic Four and never adequately resolved there - why was Namor an amnesiac drifter in New York when the new Human Torch found him and what had destroyed the original Atlantis and forced its inhabitants to wander the seas? These points are left unaddressed throughout the Tales to Astonish issues whilst Namor's origin is only hinted at by brief passing mentions. It doesn't surprise me to discover that the writer under whom the problems are resolved is Roy Thomas, in one of his earliest efforts to add the pre-Silver Age Timely & Atlas material to the continuity of the Marvel universe. The first issue of Sub-Mariner is a middle part of a storyline as Namor tackles Destiny, the foe who gave him amnesia and destroyed the original Atlantis, but the issue doesn't forget it's the start of a series and devotes a large chunk of its space to retelling Namor's origin and adventures up to his first encounter with the Fantastic Four, although much of the period between Namor's birth and the fall of Atlantis is explained very briefly over a couple of pages and with no reference to his interaction with other superheroes in the 1940s, whether in stories published at the time (such as his clashes with the original Human Torch or membership of the All-Winners Squad) or subsequent additions (though Thomas's creation of the Invaders was some years off). Still it's a good introduction to the character even if starting the new title midway through a storyline could limit its use as a "jumping-on point".

Unfortunately the volume ends with Namor seeking vengeance on Destiny, and even four years later there's still no sign of an Essential Sub-Mariner volume 2 (let alone the volume 5 it would take to cover both the Spider-Man appearances missed in my looks at guest appearances from 1962-1971 and 1972-1981). But hopefully this will be eventually rectified in due course. Otherwise we currently have a rare later Essential that ends on a stark cliffhanger.

Despite the ending, overall this is quite a good volume. Namor is something of an anti-hero to the surface world, sometimes a threat, occasionally a saviour, but as the devoted ruler of his own people - a devotion that is usually reciprocated - he is shown in a rather different light. He may be quick tempered and distrustful of the human race, even if he is half-human himself (though it's not unknown for people with multiple heritages to focus almost exclusively on just one), but his motives are good. Some of the ideas in the series have dated, particularly the quest for the trident to prove his right to the throne which feels more at home in traditional mythology than in 1960s literature, and it's easy to see why the second tale of his brief deposal is instead wrapped in political language, but overall the series holds up pretty well as a fast flowing adventure. The art may not always remember that Atlantis is a realm full of water not air, but it's strongly competent and Bill Everett's return to his creation doesn't jar with the rest of the run. Overall this is quite a solid run from one of the more unfortunately forgotten Silver Age strips.

Essential Sub-Mariner 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.
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