Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1 collects issues #1-7 of the second version of the Handbook, covering the entries from the Abomination through to Magneto. This one began in 1985 and once again the main creative forces are Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown.

The format is generally the same as before but with a much more flexible approach to entry lengths with the result that some characters have entries over two or even three pages, whilst others are small and fit onto only part of a page. The font sizes are now standardised. The character profile pro forma has been modified a bit and is now as follows:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Legal status
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin (sometimes combined with the preceding entry)
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual physical characteristics
  • Strength level
  • Known superhuman powers
  • Abilities
  • Limitations
  • Weapons
  • Base of operations
As before there's a full frontal shot of the character but in addition there are now more pictures showing the character in action, with most or all lifted from past comics and not actually credited. The entries for places such as Asgard, races such as the Lava Men, concepts such as "Gods" and some cosmic entities such as "Death" are in a simpler essay form.

This time round some of the retired and depowered characters like Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan or Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider) have been included in the main section though dead characters have been held back for the slightly renamed Book of the Dead which will come in volume 3. An editorial in issue #2 addresses the inclusion criteria and explains the rationale. It also explains that various licensed characters have been left out for legal reasons and makes one of the last known claims that the Transformers exist in the regular Marvel universe, along with the Micronauts and Shogun Warriors, even though they're not included here.

There's less in the way of Appendixes this time round, with the inside front and some of the back pages primarily given over to editorial commentary to address issues of inclusion, omission, the problems of ensuring information is up to date, and even introducing the main editorial team a bit better. One point that stands out is the involvement of most characters' then-current writer or editor on their entry, providing a strong authority to the ironing out of anomalies and the addition of any necessary information. However some writers clearly wanted to keep their options open and this is most obvious with the mini-entries for individual members of the Imperial Guard of the Shi'ar Empire. In several cases the "Known superhuman powers" entry reads "Unrevealed. It has been suggested that..." and detailing a possible power not yet seen but used by the character's equivalent in DC's Legion of Super-Heroes.

The earliest issues include a glossary and later there's a guide to Alternate Dimensions with brief text only entries in the following form:
  • Type
  • Environment
  • Usual means of access
  • Dominant lifeform
  • Prominent inhabitants
  • Comments
  • First appearance
It's annoying that the split between the inside front and back covers has been maintained here; it would have been useful to have reunited the separate sections rather than having editorials split by over sixty pages. Other than the covers there are no double-spreads and so this wouldn't have increased the page length at all.

There are some occasional omissions, and (jumping ahead slightly) not every one of these is redeemed in later volumes. An editorial in issue #7 explains that this is partially due to foreknowledge and partially a problem of space once the individual issues have had their contents drawn up. One of the most notable absentees is Iron Fist who should have appeared in issue #5, which come out between issues #122 & #123 of Power Man and Iron Fist. Another is Blade the vampire hunter, due to a lack of space in issue #2 but it stands out due to the inclusion of Hannibal King. The other big omission, and the one generating the most mail during the early issues, is the Beyonder. As explained in the editorial his final fate in Secret Wars II was known about in the Marvel office but had not yet seen print at the time the relevant Handbook issue was published and the decision was taken to hold him back for the Book of the Dead.

A few entries bring particular surprises such as the suggestion that in Secret Wars Doctor Doom only gained the Beyonder's power because the latter feigned defeat out of curiosity - and this is revealed in the entry for Klaw rather than Doom's own. The entry for "Ghost Rider" just adds to the ongoing confusion as it's for the Western character previously renamed the "Night Rider", plus his brother and his brother's descendant who both took up the mantle at various stages. The entry acknowledges the names "Ghost Rider", "Night Rider" and "Phantom Rider" as all having been used but sticks to the original (give or take a stray copy error). As this came out in a period when the demonic Ghost Rider was inactive it's easy to see why the name had been restored to Marvel's original character but it just adds to the confusion and worse was to come when a new demonic Ghost Rider came along a few years later.

Back in the mid 1980s this series served a purpose in expanding on the original edition so quickly even if the timing of its appearance suggests that it was a response to the publication of Who's Who in the DC Universe rather than a pressing need to replace the original so soon. But today the value is very different. Even more than the original edition, I am unconvinced that this series is a particular priority for the Essentials. It comes from a period that isn't especially well served by Essential volumes and the series would have first an update and then yet another edition all within the next decade. Including Update '89 there are a total of four volumes to this edition with some characters having more than one entry. The sheer length of the whole thing may make the Essential format the obvious way to reprint it but it really doesn't need reprinting at all.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1

For a special Christmas post it's time for another look at things over at the Distinguished Competition.

Although I had already encountered many US comic stories reprinted for the British market, about the first ever actual US comic I can remember seeing was an old issue of the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents. It was issue #75 in which he teamed up with Arion, Lord of Atlantis in a tale spanning many thousands of years. Having looked at the first volume of Batman's team-ups last year it's natural to now turn to Superman's.

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1 does as it says on the tin and reprints the team-ups from the first twenty-six issues of the title, originally published between 1978 and 1980. Just as Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1 covers the era of Batman's popularity surge with the TV series, this volume covers the period in which the first Superman movie came out and reaches almost the release of the second.

There's quite a lot of creators on this volume with issues written by the likes of Martin Pasko, David Michelinie, Len Wein, Paul Levitz, Steve Englehart, Cary Bates, Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway, Mike W. Barr, Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin. The art is a mixture of Starlin, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Dick Dillin, Joe Staton and Rich Buckler. That's a pretty impressive set of names suggesting this wasn't considered a throwaway title even if the lack of a continuing creative team is a worrying sign. (And yes, there's a separate post for some of the labels.)

Looking back it's surprising how long it took for Superman to get a regular rotating team-up title. For a couple of years at the start of the 1970s World's Finest had switched from the regular Superman/Batman team-up to Superman and rotating guest-stars but even in that short run Batman and/or Robin showed up quite a bit anyway. Otherwise the late arrival of such a book is surprising when Batman and, over at Marvel, both Spider-Man and the Thing had all had team-up books for some years. The imminent arrival of the first Superman movie was clearly the driving force behind the book finally appearing and, presumably, surviving the DC Implosion of 1978 which hit the company just a couple of months after the series launched. But the movie itself doesn't seem to have influenced the content of the series which instead sticks to the standard comic portrayal of Superman. For that matter Wonder Woman is also clearly based on her comic portrayal rather than that of the TV series, which was then in its final year.

As is standard for a team-up title, here's the list of guest-stars:

1. Flash
2. Flash
3. Adam Strange
4. Metal Men
5. Aquaman
6. Green Lantern
7. Red Tornado
8. Swamp Thing
9. Wonder Woman
10. Sgt. Rock
11. Hawkman
12. Mister Miracle
13. Legion of Super-Heroes
14. Superboy
15. Atom
16. Black Lightning
17. Firestorm
18. Zatanna
19. Batgirl
20. Green Arrow
21. Elongated Man
22. Captain Comet
23. Doctor Fate
24. Deadman
25. Phantom Stranger
26. Green Lantern

With the exception of Doctor Fate all the characters are the Earth 1 versions. This selection of guests is drawn very much from the better known end of the DC Multiverse with most of the big name Justice League members represented. With Batman accommodated by the regular team-up in World's Finest the most obvious absentee on the list is the Martian Manhunter. Although time travel appears a lot in the volume the stories and guest stars are rooted in the present day apart from Sgt. Rock who only appears when Superman is thrown back in time to 1944. Also appearing in issue #11, though not billed on the cover, is Marc Teichman, the fictional winner of a Daily Planet prize to spend time with Superman and based on a reader who won a prize on the letters page to be depicted fictionally. There are some cameos by various Justice League members but otherwise the only notable guest-star who doesn't get headlined is Krypto the Superdog, making a rare appearance in Kal-El's adulthood.

There's little in the way of ongoing development in this volume, not least because no writer does more than three issues consecutively. At this stage Clark Kent was working for both the Daily Planet and the WGBS TV station, and we see most of his supporting cast including Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang and Steve Lombard. However they are all primarily used as part of the general background rather than actually driving any of the stories. The first two issues form a single story and a few of the later issues are linked with Superman following up on foes in a second issue even though the first's guest star doesn't come with him. One of the few long term consequences comes in issue #17 when at the end of their adventure together Superman suggests Firestorm should join the Justice League; however this proposal is not followed up here and is presumably continued in the contemporary Justice League of America.

The foes themselves are a mixture of original one-off characters to serve an individual tale and longstanding foes, often key parts of the guest star's rogues' gallery. New foes used here include the Volkir and Zelkot, two alien races who evolved from the same common ancestor but who have now been at war for thousands of years, the Skrynians, an alien race from a dying planet seeking a new world with a suitably cold climate, Frank Rayles, a rich crook and brother of an astronomer, the Sabromians, a set of alien invaders, Hugh Bryant, a lonely alien who has been trapped on Earth for millions of years evolving into the planet's dominant life form at any given moment but now devolving backwards into those forms, Caligro the Great, a failed magician embittered by the success and fame of the heroes, Doctor Horus, an anthropologist whose mind has drawn in both his house and people visiting, Bo Force, a crooked oil magnate, the Masters, an alien race who use an infection to turn humans into their own kind, Starstriker, a mutant seeking to activate his own mental powers, El Muchacho, a mischievous imp, Mr. Genarian, a mobster seeking to prolong his life, and N'Gon, an alien seeking extra power to destroy its duplicate counterpart. Note just how many different alien races are used in this volume. Existing foes seen here include Kaskor, Adam Strange's longstanding enemy, Chemo, the Metal Men's old foe, I.Q., an old Hawkman foe but here appearing against the Metal Men, Ocean Master, half-brother of Aquaman, Star Sapphire, the alien warrior possessing Green Lantern's girlfriend Carol Ferris, the Weaponers of Qward, old foes of Green Lantern, Solomon Grundy, the lesser known Earth 1 version of the swamp monster, Killer Frost, Firestorm's recurrent foe, and Tala, the soul seeking demoness enemy of the Phantom Stranger. And there are the generic foes such as the German soldiers in the team-up with Sgt. Rock. Superman's recurring foes seen here are limited to Intergang, the Metropolis based criminal organisation. There's also a brief appearance by the Reverse-Flash, who in black and white looks almost identical to the Flash bar the background colour on their chest symbols.

The one recurring storyline involves Clark's old friend from his Smallville days, Pete Ross and his son Jon. Pete has known of Clark's identity for many years but concealed his knowledge. Now he turns to Superman for help when Jon is kidnapped by aliens and taken to an alien world. Superman promises to rescue Jon but the Legion of Super-Heroes intervene because Jon's kidnap and separation from his father is a crucial moment in history. This creates a terrible dilemma for Superman and his decision to leave Jon there is one that sits uneasily with him for some time. It also leads to a rupture in his friendship with Pete as the latter turns on him and seeks vengeance then succumbs to madness. Later on in the volume Tala seeks to possess Superman's soul, digging at this incident as it is his greatest failure; however Superman resolves to put things right by bringing Jon home whilst the Phantom Stranger battles Tala. Seeing his son again cures Pete's madness and anger, a little too instantly, and there's a reconciliation between the old friends. It's a pity that this storyline is wrapped up so quickly as Pete could have made for quite an interesting recurring adversary who knows Superman's identity and has a strong personal history of friendship with the Kryptonian that not even the Lex Luthor of this era had. And unlike Luthor his motivation would be a lot more sophisticated than an accident that made him bald.

One of the general rules in these stories (and indeed much of DC in this era) is that it is not possible to time travel to a moment in time when one is already present and so it's not possible to meet one's own self. In general this rule is followed even though it can cause problems but there are two times when Superman encounters Superboy. On the first occasion the space-time continuum is temporarily disrupted, suspending the natural law until the two Kal-Els make physical contact and restore the normal order. Later Pete Ross switches his mind with Superboy's and consequently both the mind and body of Superboy are able to co-exist in the present day with Superman, being able to interact and make physical contact. In general the rule can work to put a restraint upon time travel powers and also constrain the excesses of writers, but it's a little unsatisfactory when it can be circumvented so easily.

In general Superman and his guest stars work well together. Either the guest star has sufficiently comparable power that they contribute strongly to the action or else the situation requires other skills such as detection. The one guest star who feels underused is Black Lightning as his appearance involves dealing with Hugh, whose devolution makes him ever stronger and so by the end of the tale it seems as though Black Lightning is just a bystander as Superman resolves the menace. This may be a consequence of the team-up being seemingly written quickly to meet fan demand on the letters page. On several occasions Superman's powers are temporarily weakened or suspended by events, adding to the tension but also helping to level the playing field. With most of the heroes it's clear that Superman has a long history of working with them, though for the Metal Men this is their first meeting with him.

The page lengths of issues vary a bit, ranging from seventeen to twenty-five pages. It's most notable in the first few issues, clearly due to the title almost immediately getting caught up in DC's expansion plans to only for the DC Implosion to suddenly come along and cut them back. This also sees the series, and DC in general, go through exactly the same cycle as Marvel did earlier in the decade whereby the price and page count both rise for a brief period only to fall back but with the price for the shorter issues higher than before. One sign of overall coherence is that despite the rapid turnover of writers and artists, there are no major mistakes or announcements of forthcoming guest stars who either show up late or not at all.

A team-up book from this era is never going to be the best place to sample a company's overall story structure. However this volume does give a strong glimpse at both the characters and talent at DC at this time. It may have taken Superman a long time to get a team-up title but once established it presents a generally coherent set of adventures that don't lag or descend into excessive formula. All in all this is a good sampler of the DC universe in this period and an example of a title that managed to get things right pretty quickly.

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1 - creator labels

This volume has a lot of creators so here's the usual extra post to carry the labels for some of them.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Here's one of the less well known Spider-Man Christmas covers, coming from the UK's Spider-Man and Zoids #43 from 1986:

And this was the last Christmas for a few years that saw a Spider-Man annual in stockings here:

Friday, 19 December 2014

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1

It's time for a special side-step to look at a Marvel series collected in a black and white on cheap paper - but it's not quite an Essential.

Over the years Marvel have seen many licences come and go, often making it hard to reprint some adventures in later years - we've already seen issues of Giant-Size Spider-Man or Marvel Team-Up amongst other series that have had to be left out of the Essentials because of the guest stars involved. But often the terms of the original licence are more favourable for reprinting the character's own series, albeit in unusual places. Usually the rights to the stories end up being held by the characters' copyright owners and so later licensees can reprint the adventures. The likes of Marvel's Conan, Transformers, G.I. Joe and others have found their way back into publication under these terms (although joint adventures with Marvel's own characters can remain problematic). Doc Savage is another such series, with the rights held in recent years by DC.

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1 reprints the eight issue magazine series Doc Savage from 1975-1977. Everything is written by Doug Moench, with plotting on one story by John Warner and John Whitmore. The art is by the likes of John Buscema, John Romita, Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Marie Severin, Val Mayerik and Ernie Chan. The volume includes a number of pin-ups from the series but leaves out articles and interviews even though it only comes to 448 pages - Showcase Presents volumes have shown a much greater flexibility on page counts than Essentials.

Doc Savage first appeared in 1933 and has very much remained a man of his time. The amazing men - and they were invariably men - of the pulp magazines of the era are the direct ancestors of the superheroes who emerged at the end of the decade but often they haven't aged as well. Whereas the superheroes have been subject to a steady updating over the years, reflecting changing priorities and attitudes, the pulp action heroes and some of the contemporary comic strip characters have proved harder to adapt and update into complex and fallible characters struggling against the odds. As a result there are usually two latter day ways of presenting them - either in a self-mockery that extenuates the ridiculousness of the characters and the situation around them or else played straight in a reasonably accurate recreation of their original era give or take some the embellishments of the original stories. A lot of the movies of heroes of this era or homages to them just fall flat with only the Indiana Jones series really succeeding.

A movie version of Doc Savage was released in June 1975, but I've never seen it in full (and it's not had a conventional DVD release but rather a burn on demand one; a sign of a perceived limited market). Clips on YouTube suggest it was a rather campy take on the character and it frankly looks like it felt at least a decade old on its original release. The trailer is not the most enticing. But it's clear that there was an attempt to drum up interest in the character following the success of the republishing of the original pulp magazine stories as paperback books in the previous decade with James Bama's stylised covers forming the basis for the character's look in subsequent comics. Earlier in the 1970s Marvel had run an eight issue normal sized colour series and there was a both a Giant-Size reprint special and a team-up with Spider-Man in his own Giant-Size series in the first half of 1975. Then came this magazine series, which is a blatant tie in as the first issue came out the same month as the movie and both use the subtitle "The Man of Bronze" although the magazine's cover drops it from issue #3 onwards.

The man himself is not the most developed of characters, reflecting his pulp roots. Doc Savage has trained his body and mind to the ultimate perfection, making him super strong and super intelligent, with fast reflexes and the ability to solve any problem or situation with the utmost ease. He is highly disciplined with most stories showing him taking two hours each day to undertake a physical and mental workout to enhance himself. He is also focused - like many traditional heroes of serialised fiction he shows no interest in romance at all and is instead dedicated to the mission at hand. But here come the two problems with the character. He is too perfect with no substantial flaws that cause significant problems in his adventures. About the only flaw on display is his sexism towards both his cousin Pat and Monk's secretary Monica, declaring "Adventure is no place for a woman" (page 267) when brushing off the former. But even this flaw isn't used efficiently as Pat forces her way into going on the adventure with the regular team from the outset rather than coming in to the rescue. Beyond this Doc Savage is a know-all and do-all who can achieve just about anything and this makes it harder to get excited about such a hero. And at times he seems beyond human - indeed some of his foes explicitly shout this in frustration. On only one occasion do we hear of how he deals with captured criminals (most foes die in the climaxes) and it is to "perform certain surgical procedures upon your brains after which you will remember nothing of this -- nothing of what you did..." (page 389) In other words he will perform lobotomies on them. From a modern perspective the practice itself is horrifying but what's also concerning is the way in which Doc Savage feels he has the right to arbitrarily impose a punishment and literally change how people think. Given the characterisation and the era it is hard to avoid thinking of the concept of the übermensch, especially as that word has historically been translated as "superman".

Now Nietzsche's philosophy is generally unfamiliar to me and his own ideas have had their reputation damaged through association with the Nazis, so it's hard to judge just how far Doc Savage conforms to the übermensch model as originally conceived, though it's notable that Doc Savage's adventures often start out as the straightforward helping of others rather than proactively seeking to save the world and personally make history. But the perfect man is not a character concept that works well in this day and age. It didn't really in the 1960s & 1970s which is why so many film and TV adaptations went down the road of camp and self-mockery. But here we have a straight adaptation of the original pulps that is all too faithful to their 1930s sensibilities and outlook. And that just doesn't feel right.

To some extent Doc's aides, only once here called the "Famous Five", offer a more realistic approach. Several defy stereotypes in their appearance and characterisation but they are all experts in one way or another. They consist of:
  • "Monk" aka Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett Mayfair - expert in chemistry and owner of a pig called "Habeus Corpus" (sic - occasionally the correct spelling "Habeas Corpus" is used instead) who sometimes accompanies him on his adventures.
  • "Ham" aka Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks - top attorney and stylish dresser
  • "Renny" aka Colonel John Renwick - engineer
  • "Long Tom" aka Major Thomas J. Roberts - electrical expert
  • "Johnny" aka William Harper Littlejohn - archaeologist and geologist expert
What immediately dates this group is its composition, being all male and appearing to all be from the same ethnic and social background. Had the not been created until at least the 1960s then there would have almost certainly been a woman there and if created in the 1970s the group would have been multi-racial. The military ranks are mentioned on each introduction and raises questions as to how the first four, who all appear to be around their 30s, could have risen to such high ranks. None of them appear to be career soldiers but equally they seem a little young to have achieved these ranks as recruits in the First World War, especially given that the United States was only a belligerent for less than two years before the Armistice. The problem is slightly compounded by the adventures being given dates between 1933 and 1939, yet nobody seems to age in this time. It feels like these titles have been given to the characters just to enhance their standing as expert support for Savage. Monk and Ham get the most attention, with the two constantly bickering, fighting and playing practical jokes on each other. Ham fancies himself as a ladies' man, although women he flirts with do not always want the same outcome, but most of the team are attracted to at least one woman throughout the run, leaving Doc Savage above sexuality.

Issue #3 states it is starting a series of solo adventures for the five as back-up tales; however that issue's solo story of Monk is the only one to appear and subsequent issues revert to the format of full-length adventures. The story is set at the same time as the issue's main adventure, with Monk thus absent from it, and this restriction may have proved the feature's undoing.

The other character of note from the original pulps to appear here is Pat Savage, Doc's cousin who appears in just issue #5. There isn't room to fully explore her skills and strengths but she is similar to her cousin in many regards and more than a match for any of his aides as well as resourceful enough to force her way into an adventure to Loch Ness. Clearly a forerunner of the likes of Supergirl, she is rather underused and could have appeared more to provide balance in the series and help to pull it forward.

The adventures themselves are very much in the pulp tradition with lots of over the top villainy, some science fiction and fantasy, globe trotting, fancy gadgets and the resolution of matters with fists. There are monsters, mutants, deformed men in iron masks, secret bases, global conspiracies and more. It's all traditional adventuring that sticks to its roots. None of the villains are recurring and the dates given suggest the adventures may take place out of publication order. There's some sophistication, with problems to be solved and so providing a challenge beyond getting to a place and fighting a solution. Some of the puzzles are immensely complicated such as a pair of multi-levelled cryptic clues in the first issue that take nearly four whole pages for Doc Savage to unravel and seem almost impossible for any readers bar perhaps the most advanced crossword solvers. Yet the same issue features a blatant clue to the villain's identity in the form of his name, though notably this isn't remarked upon. Perhaps Doc Savage doesn't want to admit to being so complicated that he overlooked the obvious. On another occasion Savage is able to deduce that "Maison Blanche" is a translation from not English but Spanish and so the destination is not the White House but Casa Blanca.

The reproduction on this volume is quite good considering that the source material for the magazines is often in a worse state than the regular sized comics. A small note on the front page thanks Mark Waid "for loan of source material" suggesting that this volume has been compiled from original copies of the printed magazines themselves. If so then an excellent job has been done in remastering them. Unfortunately a few errors have crept in such as the inversion of pages 166 & 167. I don't know if that error was made in 2011 or 1975.

Overall this volume is of interest as a curiosity, being one of a surprisingly high number of times when one of Marvel's licensed titles has been reprinted by the current rights holder. Unfortunately the contents aren't that great. If you're a fan of the 1930s pulp adventures then this volume is a good homage to them. But if you're expecting something more sophisticated and reflecting the sensibilities of the 1970s then it's a disappointment. Both the character and the wider cast are very clearly dated and no real attempt has been made to update them in any way. That may have been an artistic decision or a restriction of the licence but the result is a fairly lightweight series that fails to hold up by even the standards of when it was first printed.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3 collects issues #1-29 of his second series plus Annual #1 and the crossover issues of Tomb of Dracula #44-45. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, his Sanctum Sanctorum, Eternity and Dormammu, plus a pin-up of Doctor Strange and Dracula from a Marvel calendar and an extra page used in a previous reprint of Tomb of Dracula #45. Most issues are written by Steve Englehart with shorter runs by Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin and Roger Stern, and individual writing or plotting contributions by Frank Brunner and Roy Thomas. The art sees runs by Frank Brunner, Gene Colan and, right at the end, Tom Sutton, plus other contributions by Alan Weiss, Alfredo P. Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Dan Adkins, Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom. One issue sees a framing sequence around a reprint of Strange Tales #126-127 drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. The annual is written by Englehart and co-plotted & drawn by P. Craig Russell whilst the Tomb of Dracula issues are written by Wolfman and drawn by Colan. That's a lot of creators so there's a separate post for some of the labels.

Doctor Strange is a character and series that a lot of writers have struggled with over the years. Some seem to have very little idea as to what to do with the character beyond yet more rounds of battles with the likes of Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare and other foes from the original stories along with yet more encounters with Eternity for the sake of it, continuing to wallow in the legacy of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee but only really offering more homages of the same old. Others try to ignore all those elements and instead thrust the good doctor into new environments, taking him away from all of that but again it can be ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity around Doctor Strange's powers with his power level especially volatile to the point that stories can be resolved with deus ex machina endings. It's unsurprising to find that in this volume there are multiple attempts to contain his power, whether by temporarily depowering him whilst in a specific environment or else overtly trimming his wings when he gives up the role of Sorcerer Supreme, although he gets it back later on under a new writer.

The early issues do a lot for the mythology with the introduction of Silver Dagger, the fanatical ex-Cardinal who has become on of Doctor Strange's most recurring of foes, but otherwise we get an epic retread of familiar themes. But there's a real effort to build on what has come before rather than merely retelling the same kind of adventures. There's a return of Dormammu but as a reincarnation no longer bound by his previous vow to spare Earth and so opening up new dangers. At the same time we learn a great deal more about the Dark Dimension including the revelation that Clea is the daughter of Umar and Orini, and thus the true heir to the throne. Elsewhere Doctor Strange is thrust into the Orb of Agamotto and into the realm where he encounters Agamotto himself. (Although he is not yet explicitly named but it's pretty clear who this giant caterpillar is meant to be.)

There's a growth in the cosmic elements and a willingness to both define and shake up the universe, seen most obviously in the encounter with the personification of Death. Here the entity is presented as male though the female presentation would subsequently come to be the norm. Death and Eternity are now set out as the two fundamental forces in the universe, marking the very brief start to attempts to rationalise the many different seemingly all powerful cosmic entities who have shown up in Marvel comics over the years. Such is the boldness on the cosmic scale that the end of issue #12 sees the Earth itself destroyed by Mordo's madness. And it isn't an illusion or reversed but instead the planet is recreated by Eternity, with accelerated evolution to restore it to the exact moment. However Doctor Strange has to live with the knowledge of what happened, that everyone around him is a duplicate whilst he is the sole survivor of the original planet.

It's surprising just how close to modern religion this run gets. There's explicit acknowledgement of God and where He sits in the cosmic hierarchy with Eternity clearly below him. Later Doctor Strange battles a being who is presented explicitly as Satan. Although he acknowledges other names such as "Lucifer", "Mephistopheles", "Beelzebub" and "Old Nick", there is nothing here to suggest that he is in fact one of the many demons. Truly the Devil is the most inconsistently portrayed character in the Marvel universe.

One of the recurring themes sees Doctor Strange thrust into a variety of worlds in which he encounters aspects of himself and/or his life. One of the most memorable comes in a realm populated by duplicates of Stephen though the ruler is masked. And it seems Steve Englehart's hostility to Richard Nixon continued unabated even a year after the resignation because the ruler is hiding behind a Richard Nixon mask.

This mixture of the fantastic and the personal works well with some good development of Clea. She and Stephen demonstrate a mixture of uncertainty and disagreement over exactly what their relationship is, though given the age of these issues it's surprising that they're all but actually showing us the couple sleeping together. (For that matter the flashback depicting the one night stand between Clea's parents, Orini and Umar, is also quite close to explicit.) The two aren't always on the same wavelength about when they are being master and disciple and when they are a couple, leading to some unfortunate moments. Clea's insecurities are played on by a number of beings, and ultimately she is subjected to a spell by Xander that leaves her amnesiac and angry, attacking even Doctor Strange. Although the spell is short-lived and Clea soon returns to Stephen's side, it's clear by the end of the volume that there are still issues to resolve.

The United States's bicentennial is marked with an aborted saga called "the Occult History of America" in which Doctor Strange and Clea travel through the nation's history to investigate Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. In the course of the journey they encounter Stygyro, who is presented as the perfect contrast to Strange, being a long-lived and powerful sorcerer from a previous era, travelling across the ages and even seducing Clea whilst in the form of Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately both the saga and Stygyro fall victim to changing writers, with the Occult History hurriedly abandoned whilst Stygyro later turns up as one of the Creators. The Creators are the main focus of the rear of the volume as they and their agent Xander work to undermine Doctor Strange, even manipulating him into decisions that remove the Sorcerer Supreme title from him. They are a group of sorcerers working with the In-Betweener to reform the universe through the odd method of swapping places with the stars and remoulding the now human stars in their own image. At one stage the Earth has become a place occupied by anthropomorphic animals, including the boar Doctor Stranger Yet who provides for an interesting confrontation between the two counterparts. The epic climaxes in a showdown with the In-Betweener at the Wheel of Change.

The annual serves as a side-step from this storyline as Doctor Strange hunts for Clea but gets dragged into a power struggle in the realm known as Phaseworld, where the Empress Lectra battles both her sister Phaydra and the angel Tempus. However the revelation of Lectra's lies and illusions in luring Stephen ultimately result in the destruction of the whole realm and all who live within it. It's a curious little tale but ultimately it doesn't amount to much and it's easy to see why it would later be rewritten as the 1990s one-shot Doctor Strange: What is it that Disturbs You Stephen?

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be significant in the long run for the first interaction between the two lead characters but here it feels like a step out of the comfort zone and into a crossover for the sake of a crossover. It doesn't add much to either series and feels like it was done just to boost sales on the weaker selling title, though I'm not sure which one that was.

This run shows a few deadline problems that led to reprints; oddly both of the original stories are included in full here. In issue #3 Doctor Strange is on a journey through the Orb of Agamotto to confront Death and remembers the events of how he first met Clea and Dormammu. Here there's a brief framing sequence to tie things together, with the final page combining both modern and classic material so it would have been hard to present just the frame as sometimes happens when the Essentials come to a reprint issue. Still it's a surprise and delight to see a Ditko-Lee story again even if the contrast between the original artwork and the-then modern style is all too clear. Issue #21 sees a reprint of "The Coming of... Dr. Strange" from issue #169 of the previous series. It's odd that it's included here as the story is presented straight up as a reprint without any effort to incorporate it into the ongoing narrative. Due to a reduced page count a bit of the story has had to be trimmed and, using volume 2 side by side with volume 3, it's possible to compare the two to see what has been change. Most of the loss is in individual pages but occasionally two pages have been cut up to produce one condensed version. As the most substantial version of Doctor Strange's origin to date it's easy to see why it was chosen but it's harder to understand why it was included in this reprint volume unless someone in production failed to spot it was a reprint until it was too late.

Another issue that feels like a deadline problem is #29 which carries a team-up with Nighthawk as they battle Death-Stalker, the old foe of Daredevil. The whole thing feels odd and a little out of place in the run despite being by the regular creative team. Either this was an attempt by a newish writer to go in a different direction from before or else it was prepared as an emergency standby that could fill-in a gap in either this series or the Defenders. Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory ending to it all.

Overall this volume is solid but not always the strongest. The first two thirds show a good attempt to combine the traditional Doctor Strange mythology with some new elements and new takes on the existing ones, and it broadly works to make the series interesting. However there's still some repetition of themes and it continues in the last third of the volume which shows all the signs of multiple writers struggling with the situation they have inherited, with some going in a clearly different direction from what was previously planned, and the result is an unsatisfactory mess. Doctor Strange is a tricky series to get right so it's a pity when such periods don't last for longer.

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3 - 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.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 3

Essential Wolverine volume 3 contains issues #48-69. Nearly all the issues are written by Larry Hama bar a couple by D.G. Chichester and another by Fabian Nicieza. The early art is mainly by Marc Silvestri and the later by Mark Texeira. Other issues are drawn by Andy Kubert, Darick Robertson, Dave Hoover, Mark Pacella and Dwayne Turner. Bonus material nestling at the back of at least the first edition consists of a two-page pin-up and a one-page gag strip by Chris Giarrusso.

Curiously the second cover for the volume reuses the art originally used for the first cover of volume 2. It's a surprising choice, even though Wolverine does briefly reuse his brown costume in this volume, as by this stage it was more common to reuse the cover of one of the issues in a given volume. Although a lot of the issues have over specific covers that may not have been suitable, either issue #64 or #67 would have done the job, both depicting sufficiently generic scenes.

One of the slightly irritating features is that, in the first edition at least, the covers sometimes appear at the end of an issues instead of at the start. The cause is the widespread use of double page splashes that was a popular trend in the early 1990s, even though printing was often prone to misaligning the pages so the two halves didn't always sync up and/or dialogue could get lost at the page fold. (Fortunately the double page spreads here manage to keep the dialogue in places where it can be read.) The approach here may be a necessity to avoid blank pages and squeeze one further issue in, although as discussed below there would have been good reasons to leave #69 out. But one consequence is that it is sometimes easy to miss the change between issues (and the title page isn't always the first one) and it's also harder to locate an individual one. Another, minor, problem of the era was the tendency to occasionally use colour for some words in speech bubbles; the early editions simply display a few blank spaces as a consequence.

This volume builds heavily upon the revelations in the "Weapon X" storyline in Marvel Comics Presents to the point that I feel that that should have been included in the run (and may well have been if the Essentials hadn't got to Wolverine until about a decade later but then they needed the most popular series to establish themselves with). However even without direct experience of the storyline or characters such as "the Professor" or Carol Hines, both of whom reappear here, it's fairly easy to follow the flow of events. Almost all of this volume covers a period in which Wolverine is struggling with implants in his mind that have created false memories. His searches bring him to the sets on which these memories were acted out and he's left wondering just what, if anything, actually did happen with his relationship with Silver Fox by far the most uncertain and painful of the memories. Several other Weapon X participants - Sabretooth, Maverick, Silver Fox, Mastodon, and Kestrel/John Wraith - appear throughout the run and they've all had similar implants, which are ultimately traced to Psi-Borg. At one stage an attempt to undo the blocks leads to Wolverine believing it's 1968 and going to a former Soviet republic in order to carry out a mission once more and it's hard to tell when it's the present day and when it's 1968 until he puts on his costume. Although the implants are ultimately removed from Wolverine's mind, a major consequence is that a lot of the small revelations about his past are now suspect, thus restoring mystery to the character.

This brings up the basic problem with keeping characters enigmatic in the long run. Either their past is kept an overall mystery forever, resulting in confusion and contradiction as little pieces slip through without due regard for one another, or else big revelations have to be undone to throw the past back into the melting pot. Whilst the basics of how he acquired the adamantium and claws or his work for the CIA are retained, enough question marks are opened up to make most of his previous specific memories now questionable. And it's not just Wolverine alone who is put through this - Sabretooth also has his past challenged and so now it's even more open to question whether or not he is Wolverine's father. Silver Fox also finds some of her memories have been constructed and it adds to the tension as we slowly discover just how much of her and Wolverine's remembered past actually happened.

The Weapon X project and his time as a government agent aren't the only parts of Wolverine's past to be touched on. We get a return visit to Japan which brings conflict with both the Hand ninjas and Cylla, one of the Reavers' cyborgs, as well as old friends such as Yukio and Mariko. There's a moving end to the story of Mariko as she agrees to a deal to end the illegal operations of the Yashida clan but one of the terms is that she cut off one of her fingers. She agrees only to discover the knife is poisoned and in order to avoid a painful death she begs Wolverine to use his claws to kill her quickly. Silver Fox also comes to a nasty end as Psi-Borg makes Sabretooth recreate the murder Logan remembers, only this time it is for real. On a more general X-Men level there's an encounter with Mojo who is once again trying to exploit events to generate profitable entertainment, this time trying to tamper with the Big Crunch at the end of the universe. The last issue begins a storyline in the Savage Land where Sauron has taken the leadership of the Mutates but the volume ends after only the first issue.

The volume introduces a number of new foes, some of whom offer greater staying power than others. Shiva is a robot controlled by a computer program and sent to dispose of Wolverine and other products of the Weapon X project. Every time the robot is destroyed a new one is dispatched with knowledge of past defeats. The robots the program is limited but we don't see a definite ending to the supply. Also coming from the project is Psi-Borg aka Aldo Ferro, the crime boss who invested in the Weapon X project in the hope of prolonging his life and who has the power to manipulate minds and memories. From Wolverine's past missions comes Epsilon Red, a Soviet super soldier very similar in appearance to Omega Red (the main difference is in their colouring which is lost here) who was meant to be the first man on the moon but the project was abandoned and he was left unable to fulfil his dreams of the stars. Some more mundane foes have been lifted from contemporary trends, such as the Vidkids, a gang of youths who are murdering the Morlocks merely for kicks, or the Nature Defense League, a team of radical eco-terrorists. The most significant member is their leader Monkeywrench with his explosive spikes; curiously he debuts in an issue by D.G. Chichester when the reuse of a name from G.I. Joe suggests Larry Hama's hand in his creation.

This may be one of the most recent runs to have appeared in the Essentials but there are still moments when it shows its age. In issue #50 Logan obtains a file on him from the National Security Agency which Professor X estimates to have over 50,000 pages of words and just as many visual pages. It has had to be stored on no less than two shoeboxes worth of floppy disks. Even by the time the volume was first printed in 1998 this was almost ancient computing history as larger memory formats such as writeable CDs and Zip disks were already around, although neither drive was standard issue with computers available on the high street (though you could usually read a writeable CD on a standard CD-ROM drive) and there was a bit of a format battle amongst industry and niche users. What's even more amazing is that this file has been sent over a modem, which makes me suspect that Larry Hama was not terribly familiar with either the terminology or the contemporary capacity as Logan has the full file by the next day but in reality this would have taken a bit longer. Elsewhere Wolverine's 1968 mission revisited takes him to the country of "Kazakh" - I'm not sure if this was a thin attempt to disguise a real country or an alternate name proposed for Kazakhstan in the early post-Communist years that never caught on.

On a more general level the volume shows the era's predilection for long running storylines in which individual issues can be read quite quickly instead of intense one-off storylines. And often the comics are exceptionally art heavy, most obviously seen with the heavy use of double-page spreads, stemming from an obsession with art over plot that infected part of the comics industry in the period. This makes for a fast read in collected form but originally these issues came out over a space of nineteen months (with a couple of periods when the series went semi-monthly) and it must have been maddening to readers to have such a detailed storyline drag out for so long, made worse by the occasional fill-in issues.

I don't normally comment on pin-ups included in these volumes but the one here is an awful example of how comics in this era sometimes let the art take priority over basic reading. In order to appreciate it one has to turn the book on its side for an excessive two pages when the same could have been achieved in one. Luckily none of the issues in this volume fell for this reader unfriendly practice. The gag strip is an early example of the Mini Marvels feature (though it's branded only as "An Untold Tale of Wolverine") that rips into the "Patch" disguise of just an eyepatch, especially compared to other such paper thin disguises. It's okay for what it is but the target of the joke is dated as Wolverine hasn't used the "Patch" identity since midway through the previous volume.

Issue #69 is the first issue of a multi-part storyline and the result is that this volume ends on a cliffhanger. It took only eight years before volume 4 came out, a rather longer wait than that for the same numbered Spider-Man and X-Men volumes which also deployed this approach (at least in the first editions). Thankfully the Essentials subsequently adopted more flexible lengths to ensure the volumes end at neater points (though it's also a relief that they didn't start putting out new editions of the Wolverine volumes with the contents shifted about).

Overall this collected edition has been to the issues' benefit. Individually the main storyline may have run on for rather too long and also suffered from a perceived need to spotlight the art above all else, but when brought together the whole thing makes for a strong coherent read. It's almost a pity that issue #69 was included, not just because of the cliffhanger but also because issues #48 to #68 make for a broadly complete package with only a few side-shows and interventions (issues #58 & #59 not only feel like fill-ins but explicitly interrupt the ongoing narrative and say so) and this would have been one of the rare times when an Essential volume maps exactly to a major epic storyline.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Essential Defenders volume 3

Essential Defenders volume 3 reprints issues #31-60 and Annual #1. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, Hellcat and Valkyrie and the team entries for the Defenders and Zodiac. Most of the writing is by Steve Gerber, who also does the annual, and David Anthony Kraft with contributions Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, John Warner and Chris Claremont and back-ups by Naomi Basner and Scott Edelman. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema, who also does the annual, and Keith Giffen with other work by Dave Cockrum, Michael Golden, Carmine Infantino, George Tuska and Ed Hannigan with the back-ups by Sandy Plunkett and Juan Ortiz. Inevitably there's a separate post for some of the labels.

It's amazing that this is volume 3 of a series and yet it begins as early as issue #31 without a preceding substantial run under another title. This been mainly been down to a combination of the Giant-Sizes and the crossover with Avengers, but it has also meant that previous progress has been slow for the team. Now we get a run of thirty issues with only an annual for additional material and so the team can develop more quickly. And it's increasingly clear that the Defenders aren't really a "non-team". It's clear who's a member and who is a guest star, with Devil Slayer's arrival having some trappings of a formal initiation with welcomes and handshakes, putting lie to the idea that any hero who hangs around for even a single adventure is a Defender. There may not be a formal constitution or salary scheme - Nighthawk finds himself covering just about all expenses from damages to Power Man's fees - but there's a recognised post of leader, which changes hands in this volume, and a flow of recruits.

Of the new or returning members, Power Man has the weakest ties and soon leaves, feeling he's more of a loner and just not suited to being on a team. As he was initially called in by Jack Norriss as reinforcements to protect Nighthawk in his hospital bed from Plantman whilst the other Defenders are overwhelmed or busy elsewhere, his attachment to the team was never that strong. Devil Slayer joins right near the end and so it's not possible to see here how he will last. The new Red Guardian seems to have more staying power but is soon blackmailed into returning to the Soviet Union where she is captured and subject to experiments by the Presence who is seeking to enhance his own power with nuclear energy and has selected her to be his mate. After this she remains under Soviet custody. An interesting hero who combines a day job as a top neurosurgeon and a secret role as a street champion of the ordinary people who has taken up the identity previously used by an Avengers foe, Tania Belinsky offers some potential but falls into the same problems so many female heroes have of having her powers changed fairly early on whilst her identity isn't original. Consequently her departure isn't that big an impact on the series, especially as other women are coming to the forefront with Doctor Strange's girlfriend Clea now playing a role in several adventures and even getting her own solo story when the series briefly switches to a two story format, allowing her to defeat the sorcerer Nicodemus.

But by far the most significant new recruit is Hellcat. She actually opts to hang around with the Defenders instead of taking up a longstanding offer to join the Avengers, and offers a delightful approach to heroing. She has a light hearted, fun loving adventurous approach and talks like - well maybe not a normal person in the real world of the late 1970s but certainly much less formal than many a hero. She is a welcome addition to the team and it's already easy to see she will become one of the core Defenders in the long run. Not acknowledged at all is her past as Patsy Walker, star of multiple teen soap comics that were Marvel's answer to Archie, bar references to her ex-husband Buzz's attitudes, but that doesn't seem to matter at the moment. Appearing as clear guest stars are the likes of Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, whilst the Sub-Mariner returns but very much in guest star mode.

The first third of the volume is taken up with a length saga involving the Headmen - who have recruited a fourth member, the female Ruby Thursday with an artificial shape changing head - and Nebulon, now operating through a strange cult devoted to "Celestial Mind Control". The early issues have the pretty outlandish idea of the Headmen capturing Nighthawk and replacing his brain with that of Chondu of the Headmen in order to infiltrate the Defenders. It gets more complex when Jack Norriss's spirit is put into Nighthawk's body whilst Chondu's spirit is displaced to "Bambi", a young deer the Hulk has befriended. Whilst a disembodied brain Nighthawk relives his past and we learn about how he grew up monetarily rich but emotionally poor, sadly an all-too common combination, and see a succession of tragedies that made him the man he now is. Eventually Jack's spirit and Nighthawk's brain are restored to their own bodies, albeit with Nighthawk experiencing a crisis of awareness as he wonders just what is and isn't real, but Chondu ends up in a new composite body at the cost of "Bambi". Elsewhere Valkyrie is arrested and sent to a women's prison, with the other Defenders unaware of her fate. Inside the jail she faces bullying from other inmates, made worse by her inability to harm another woman, and a warden who tries to rape her. However she grows in popularity with other prisoners to the point that a riot starts for better conditions and her work in diffusing it helps to get her released with all charges dropped. Meanwhile Nebulon, leading a race of fish-like lizards called Luberdites, has set up the Celestial Mind Control cult to take over and "liberate" the world through advancing humanity. Amongst those drawn in are the old Marvel foes the Eel and the Porcupine. The CMC movement seeks presidential endorsement and a United Nations posting but the Headmen try to take it over for their own scheme. In the end the Defenders beat the Headmen and show Nebulon how his movement would undermine humanity's will. It's a complex story that lasts nearly a year, with the climax placed in the annual; one of the first times Marvel resorted to such a method in the superhero titles. It's also almost the last story by Steve Gerber on the series though he does one further issue with Doctor Strange's old foe Shazana reappearing; this feels like a fill-in idea being used up in a hurry.

In general Gerber's issues don't show much of his often used overt social commentary beyond the contemporary fad for cults that took an alternative mental approach, and whilst Tania's presence is used for occasional contrasts between the way things are in the United States and the Soviet Union but it's more of an aside to reinforce her outsider character rather than either propaganda about the superiority of the west or an exploration of alternatives. Instead the focus primarily on weird action, bar a brief use of a female presidential candidate as an alias for the Headmen's activities. However there's a brief scene in the annual that is set in New Delhi and the captions feel highly polemical, portraying India as a backward, illiterate and superstitious country, criticising the capital as primitive and expressing outrage that such a country can be a nuclear power. This is beyond a critic of nuclear weapons in general and feels very much a piece of American superiority pouring scorn on other countries for daring to raise themselves to a similar level of defence and independence. And nothing in these captions is remotely relevant to the story at hand.

Gerber's departure leaves one particular subplot still unexplained - the mysterious Elf with a gun who pops up at random to kill random people. And the new writers don't explain why. Instead issue #46 sees the Elf about to shoot the paper boy at the Richmond Riding Academy when suddenly a lorry thunders down the road and runs over the Elf. Consequently we're left with an unexplained and somewhat random chain of events that show that in life not everything has an explanation and instead we sometimes only get to glimpse a bigger pattern without ever knowing the reason why. It's a good little metaphor for life though it's the kind of approach that doesn't satisfy all comic readers so it remains to be seen if any later writers will instead seek to explain the Elf. All in all Gerber's run on Defenders has been solid though not spectacular and he has made the series quite distinct.

Some of the distinctiveness remains with successive writers as the threats remain a mixture of the unusual and off the wall but there are some stock ideas in use, especially in the middle of the volume when it takes some time to settle a new writer.  Egghead founds a team of existing villains called the Emissaries of Evil, including the Rhino, Solarr and the Cobalt Man, but it doesn't last and is ultimately consumed by infighting. Then Doctor Strange succumbs to the control of the Star of Capistan and assumes the villainous identity of Red Rajah. After his defeat he opts to leave the team for the time being with Nighthawk taking over as leader and the team's de facto base shifting to the Richmond Riding Academy on Long Island. Both Doctor Strange and his Sanctum Sanctorum return within this volume but it's a sign of how the series has grown strong enough to no longer rely on the good doctor and his villains as the core of the series.

Nighthawk's leadership faces a baptism of fire in another mini-epic as the villain Scorpio - actually Jake Fury, the S.H.I.E.L.D. director's brother - tries to create a new Zodiac society, this time with the other eleven as artificial lifeforms. However not all are "born" successfully and he's especially distraught at the "still birth" of Virgo. Feeling lonely, old, unachieving and depressed he opts to take his life. Suicide should always be handled carefully in media and reasons never casually given, making this downbeat ending a rather dubious move. After this we get a string of new foes in short tales, such as the Ringer, a fighter who can expand and throw constraining rings, Lunatik, a vigilante attacking people on the university campus, and a cult worshipping the demon Belathauzer. The main extended foe in this period is the aforementioned Presence. There's a guest appearance by Ms. Marvel as the Defenders go against AIM in a sequel to one of her solo adventures and it feels as though the issue was written as a potential fill-in that could be dropped into either series as and when necessary.

The other main character developments come with Valkyrie as she continues to adapt to the unfamiliar world. Jack Norriss remains devoted to her but she is increasingly unable to return the emotion and has to forcibly explain she just isn't his wife despite occupying her body. Her unfamiliarity with the world around her shows, especially during her time in prison, and on Nighthawk's suggestion that she enrol at a local university under Barbara Norriss's name, enduring the mess of bureaucracy and bringing further culture clashes whilst she proves rather bad at keeping her identity a secret. Jack proves unable to stay away, even when Nighthawk tries to buy him off, though near the end he accepts an offer to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and goes looking for the spy organisation.

The supporting cast has a few additions, including the first appearance of Kris Keating, a police lieutenant who would go on to be a recurring pain in the Spider-Man titles. (Well actually it may not be afterall but that's for another time.) Valkyrie's enrolment at university brings her into contact with fellow students "Ledge" and "Dollar Bill"; the latter is a film buff who starts hanging around the Defenders and taking over Jack Norriss's role as non-powered helper. Bill even brings along a film camera only to curse the shots he can get. Otherwise he provides a degree of comic relief.

 In general this volume shows a series that's trying hard to offer up a distinctive approach that combines seriousness, alternative looks and comedy. The problem is that a lot of it feels rather flat and just going through motions rather than really setting things on fire. Apart from Scorpio's suicide there are no moments that feel especially badly handled but something seems to be keeping the volume just a few steps above mediocre.

Essential Defenders volume 3 - 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.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 reprints the Hulk stories from The Hulk! magazine #16 to #27. The first half is mainly written by Doug Moench with one story by Roy Thomas and another by Bruce Patterson; the latter half is a mix of Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, David Anthony Kraft, Bill Flanagan, Lora Byrne and J.M. DeMatteis. The art is mainly by Gene Colan and Ron Wilson; other stories are drawn by Mike Zeck, Herb Trimpe, Bob McLeod, John Buscema and Brent Anderson. And that means once again there's a separate labels post.

This volume has some of the most problematic reproduction of any of the later Essentials. The original magazines used a more sophisticated colouring system than the overlay method of the contemporary comics but one result is that black & white separations are now unavailable and so the material is reproduced with the original colour "burnt in" as shades of grey. This often results in a more sophisticated look compared to the regular comics of the era. Unfortunately many of the captions used a coloured background which now often appear as black text on a dark grey background and are very difficult to read without straining the eyes and/or deploying extra light. Some of the last few issues are in a better state, partially because the series reverted to black and white but also because many of the captions are white on black, but overall this volume is something of a pain to read.

The magazine series was contemporary to the later seasons of the Incredible Hulk television series and offers up a hybrid of the Hulk's screen and comic adventures. There are almost no references to the Hulk's comic supporting cast bar one retelling of the origin and instead we have a focus on Bruce Banner travelling across the United States and beyond, hunting for a cure and encountering a variety of mostly one-off characters and situations. However Banner's identity as the Hulk is public knowledge and on several occasions he is either recognised by someone who works out who he is, or else he gives his name and gets out of a tricky situation by trading upon the knowledge that he can turn into a rampaging monster.

The stories themselves are a general mix but few really stand out. A few characters pop up more than once but don't really last. The situations include a number of families with interesting internal dynamics, with the Hulk sought for a variety of purposes including treasure hunting or as the quarry in a big game safari in Africa. There's an interesting modern take on the story of Robinson Crusoe as Bruce joins a man who has opted out of society to live on a deserted island, only to see paradise end as modern day pirates chase a couple there. It also has the memorable scene of the Hulk diving into the sea to pick up the whole island and walk it to the mainland shore. Elsewhere Bruce goes to help tackle a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, with the Hulk ultimately fixing the problem. There's a convoluted tale as a politician manipulates multiple sides over a controversial dam in order to achieve a public relations triumph to propel him to the White House. Bruce tries settling down first working for a school for retarded children and then for a carnival but neither works out. There's a mess with a cult led by an old friend of Bruce's followed by a tense encounter with a paranoid family of gun obsessives then the chaos of a family of hillbillies who kidnap Bruce by accident and try to use him in convoluted dynamics relating to a daughter's suitor. There's a visit to Las Vegas where the Hulk is caught up in an organised crime feud. Nature is also a foe with one tale seeing the Hulk surviving a flooded river.

One of the few recurring characters is Dr Shiela Marks, a psychologist specialising in multiple personality syndrome (and to its credit her introduction avoids the common mistake in fictional to confuse MPS with schizophrenia). It's one of the first times that the Banner/Hulk dynamic has been expressed in psychological terms. Marks is driven by a determination to prove herself over her family's traditional expectations and professional criticism, but the first attempt to tackle the Hulk instead results in the Hulk's personality briefly controlling Banner's body and going on a rampage through New York, believing it to be a very different and far more hostile environment. She tries again in the more isolated environment of Bermuda but without direct success though she and Bruce face down the very different menace of brothers based in the underwater city of Hydropolis trying to drive humanity into living in the seas. Throughout the tales there are strong hints that she and Bruce could become an item but nothing is developed of it before a change away from having a permanent writer. Another attempt at a mental cure is made with a hypnotist that sends Bruce into a surreal fantasy but doesn't resolve the issues.

Issue #23 contains "A Very Personal Hell", the most infamous story in this run, though contrary to popular myth the scene everyone focuses upon is actually only a side incident in the story. Whilst in New York City and trying to obtain some of the latest science books with the latest research that may offer a hope of a cure, Bruce stays at a youth hostel and has a nasty encounter in the communal showers. For two very camp men try to rape him and it's clear this is not the first time they've pounced on a passing stranger. Now some of the elements of the portrayal may reflect early 1980s stereotypes that have since been forgotten (much as the story's general setting around Times Square is from an era when it had a reputation as a seedy, run-down area very different from what it is today) and so it's not easy to objectively judge what buttons this scene did and didn't press. But the two would-be rapists are classic effeminate, over the top, outrageously camp types that make their sexuality all too clear. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about a comic depicting a rape attempt as part of a generally down beat and horrific environment the lead character is enduring, and the absence of the Comics Code Authority on the magazines meant that more could be shown here than in a regular comic. And sexual assault and rape are sadly horrors that happen all too often in the real world. So the scene was probably written with the best intentions of helping to establish just what a horrible environment Bruce has found himself in. But the real problem is the lack of balance. At the time depictions of openly gay characters was almost non-existent in most media. It's true that most characters appear without anything being said about their sexual orientation and some could quite easily be gay, but that doesn't provide any balance in the slightest. Instead the only overtly gay characters depicted in not just the issue or even the series as a whole but across Marvel comics in general at the time play into stereotypes and fears about all gay men being sex obsessed and trying to rape every vaguely cute guy that comes along. It is not a defence that the attempted rape could have been a heterosexual one as there were enough portrayals of heterosexual people across the comics that such a hypothetical pair of rapists would not have been the sole representatives to appear.

It's also deeply uncomfortable that this story was written by Jim Shooter, Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief, who generally blocked depictions of gay characters in the Comics. That approach and other socially traditional restrictions have at times been defended as corporate level decisions, either due to the outlooks of the company's owners or else the nervousness of licensees who had been assured the characters used on their merchandise would not be put in situations that made the products unsellable in traditionalist areas. (And when this issue was originally published homosexual acts were still illegal in much of the United States as well as in two-thirds of the United Kingdom's legal jurisdictions.) Yes such corporate cowardice is easy to criticise when one is not personally at risk of the economic consequences but Marvel's history of pushing against the boundaries, most famously the Spider-Man drugs issues, showed that it could take a stand when there was the will to do so. And if such will wasn't forthcoming then it would have been better to depict no homosexual characters at all rather than having their total representation being a pair of predatory rapist stereotypes. It may not have been the intention to offend anyone other than rapists but the outcome was very much an offensive one.

This whole state of affairs is a pity on another level because the rest of the story is quite strong, showing a dark world of drug taking, domestic violence, depression, family break-up, disapproving relatives, child custody battles and more. Bruce very briefly finds happiness with Alice Steinfeld. However transforming to the Hulk takes Bruce away and Alice succumbs to loneliness, committing suicide. Another story in the issue, "Clothes Call", is more humorous, seeing Bruce taken in by a housewife who tries to seduce him but then her husband comes home.

Overall this is a rather inconsequential volume. There are some stories that go broader and deeper than what could be done in the Code comics of the era but this approach can backfire as happened notoriously here. And there is some delving into the very nature of what generate the Hulk years before this became a standard part of handling the character. But the run as a whole just doesn't feel especially satisfying. The decision to stand aloof from the regular comic and mirror the style of the television series is an understandable commercial move but it hasn't produced a particularly amazing set of stories that stand out for all the right reasons. This feels like an early example of over exposing a character.

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 - creator labels

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

Friday, 14 November 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 contains issues #76 to #100 plus the crossover Daredevil #178. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both Power Man and Iron Fist. The writing on the regular series consists of the end of Mary Jo Duffy's run, the start of Kurt Busiek's, a brief interlude by Denny O'Neil and individual issues by Mike W. Barr, with Chris Claremont co-plotting, and Steven Grant. The main artists are Kerry Gammill, Denys Cowan and Ernie Chan with individual issues by Rudy Nebres, Frank Miller, Mark Bright, Keith Pollard and Greg LaRocque. The Daredevil issue is both written and drawn by Frank Miller. And with so many creators a separate post for creator labels is needed.

The back cover of the volume goes so far as to trumpet a "Special guest appearance by Elektra: Assassin!" but it's something of a false colour as she only appears in a subplot in the Daredevil issue and doesn't interact with Power Man or Iron Fist. Was this simply a copywriter picking from a list of characters without actually reading the issues or was it someone deciding they had a tough sell on their hands and so threw in any sales hook no matter how remote? Because this volume is relatively tame. There aren't any spectacular developments for either of the main characters and few long running subplots. Instead this volume covers a period of largely run of the mill adventures.

The main exceptions come towards the end of the volume. There's a recurring theme of Power Man encountering ever more hostility in the Times Square area near his own office and apartment above the cinema. (When this series was originally published, Times Square had a very different reputation from today.) More and more people accuse him of being a sell out or an "Oreo" - brown on the outside but white on the inside - to the point that when the latest criminal to take on the mantel of Chemistro seeks to set himself up as a hero protecting the criminals, many locals side with him, especially in crowds watching his fights with Power Man. This leads to Power Man deciding to leave the area altogether, going so far as to move all his possessions out and saying his goodbyes. However on his final look around the area he comes across a gang of thugs mugging an old woman, believing the area to be safe for crime now that Power Man has gone. This causes him to reassess his plans and stay put to protect the ordinary folk on the street. The subplot also contrasts the different outlooks between his former girlfriend Claire Temple, now appearing on a regular basis as the hospital doctor who seems to handle every medical requirement going, and current girlfriend Harmony Young, a model. Claire's outlook is down to earth and focused on the needs of the ordinary people whilst Harmony seeks glamour and is obsessed with her appearance. Harmony starts flat-sharing with Misty Knight, and generating tension over everything from being in the communal areas at the wrong moments to criticising and rearranging Misty's wardrobe. This latter theme is soon forgotten amidst the turnover of writers. At one point Harmony is mistaken for Misty by Sabretooth, seeking revenge for a defeat earlier in the volume, and left with a badly slashed face, opening up the possibility that she will have to face a changed life and struggle with the loss of her career. However all is rapidly restored to normal by plastic surgeons just as we get to a change of writers. More durable across writers is the underlying tension about whether Luke and Claire will get back together, with Dr Burnstein even trying to matchmake them, and Harmony getting jealous of how often Luke is meeting Claire seemingly in the course of work.

Of the three regular writers on this volume we have one in the latter stages of their most prominent series, another starting out before they were famous and one of the biggest name writers of the Bronze Age of Comics. Unfortunately this volume is another example of how even some of the most acclaimed writers can fail to set a series on fire with Denny O'Neil's run seeing the series veer away from the gritty yet light hearted mainly New York based fun under Mary Jo Duffy and instead become much more generic, taking the Heroes for Hire out of the city on assignments such as stopping supply lorries being stolen by the Mole Man or attempts on the life of a musician. The series soon comes back to New York for a forgettable team-up with Moon Knight's supporting crew, while the hero himself spends almost the entire issue trapped in an overheated empty water tank, or an unsubtle tale about the drug acid, or an encounter with military mercenaries. It just feels run of the mill and it's a relief that this run is over so soon. The replacement shows more promise quickly. It's a surprise to discover Kurt Busiek's name on this volume, from over a decade before his breakout with series such as Marvels and Thunderbolts. His work here lacks the perspective of looking at how people react to living in a world of heroes and there isn't much sign of the deep level continuity that makes use of many an obscure back issue, though he does get a strong grasp on the series's own continuity and brings together a number of disparate characters. The last few issues of the volume see a multi-part storyline that brings back old foes of both heroes such as Master Khan, Ward Meachum, Shades and Comanche, adds in a new foe in the form of the wolf woman Fera, and makes Iron Fist face the loss of his soul. It's a strong tale that serves to wrap up some of the outstanding threads though it's disappointing to again have the anniversary issue taken up with a K'un-Lun derived storyline. Still it shows a good handling of the mythology that has been built up by both characters' solo series and then this combined one.

The Daredevil crossover seems to have been to promote this series, with an advert reproduced that trumpets Ol' Hornhead visiting. The tale as a whole starts out serious in the pages of Daredevil but veers off into comedy as the Heroes for Hire get commissioned to protect Matt Murdock who finds them a nuisance and distraction. It leads into an oddball tale set around a theatre as all three heroes try to secure the career of a young dancer amidst a web of petty rivalries and international espionage, leading to a slapstick chase in the middle of a live performance. Another source of comedy comes in issue #79. Bob Diamond has been in a play performing "Professor Gamble", a time-travelling scientist who battles the robotic "Dredlox". Even the play is called "The Day of the Dredlox". The homage is all too clear to me but I wonder just how well Doctor Who and the Daleks were known about by the mainstream US comics audience in 1982. And then we discover that the characters in the play are more than fiction-within-fiction.

The humour sits alongside some more serious moments such as the return of Warhawk on a crusade against all people of Oriental origin, blaming them all for what happened to him in Vietnam, or a trip to the north African country of Halwan where tensions are building with its neighbours. Other foes are more down to Earth, such as an appearance by Unus the Untouchable who is focusing just on petty crime to raise funds, having realised that the authorities are ignoring such low scale matters (in another sign of the times as this was about a decade before Rudy Giuliani heralded a new approach to crime). Later they prevent a jailbreak by Hammerhead with help from the Maggia including Man Mountain Marko and a new Eel. The series continues its mix of big and small scale villains, with various spies thrown in for good measure, serving clients, helping those who can't afford their services for nothing or a nominal fee (one boy gets help for just 25c) and facing down a variety of old foes. Throughout the later stages Power Man's friend D.W. Griffith starts filming their exploits for a documentary, though when he captures on film Ward Meachum hiring Shades and Comanche it leads to Griffith's being kidnapped.

Overall this run manages to maintain a broad family feel to the title, with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing both regularly appearing in both action and personal roles. Many issues end with one or both of the Heroes for Hire going for pizza, predating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' obsession, and overall it's clear just how strong the bonds are between the various odd couples that it's credible they would put their lives on the line for one another. The artwork is generally quite good but one irritation is the way certain female character's hairstyles keep changing to the point that it can be difficult to recognise them on first sight. Misty Knight, Harmony Young and Claire Temple all exhibit this trait and the script doesn't always immediately identify them on first appearance. Still it's only a minor niggle.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries are a nice addition that often help fill out the end pages of a volume. However they have a tendency to give away details of major storylines that haven't appeared by the end of the particular volume. Whilst Power Man's entry is from the Deluxe Edition, contemporary to issue #125, Iron Fist was strangely absent from that edition altogether (he should have appeared in issue #5, contemporary to Power Man and Iron Fist #123) and so his entry is from the later Update '89.

This volume is steady but not spectacular. Most of it follows a formula of mixing an odd couple, street level grittiness and some tongue in cheek fun in a good blend but without producing any particular star-shining moments. Approximately the middle of the volume shows the series going off the rails under a new writer without a decent grasp on the title but fortunately this doesn't last long. The last part shows the earliest work by a future star writer and though it may lack many of his hallmarks it nonetheless holds up reasonably well. This series has dated in some surprising ways in its portrayal of New York but overall it remains solid stuff. There may not be any particular standouts but collectively the series still holds its own and broadly the volume is pretty good.

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 - creator labels

We have yet another volume with lots of creators so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 2

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains issues #22-46 of the original Captain Marvel series plus Iron Man #55 and Marvel Feature #12. Issue #36 is a reprint with a framing sequence that is included here. The Iron Man issue is a prologue to a storyline in the main series whilst the Marvel Feature issue ties in with that and is also part of the try-out for Marvel Two-in-One. Bonus material includes a map of Titan from issue #27 plus the covers, pin-ups and extra pages from the reprint series The Life of Captain Marvel. The writing on the main series is primarily by Mike Friedrich, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart either solo or in various combinations with Al Milgrom co-plotting some issues and a few by Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. The art is mainly by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and Wayne Boring with an individual issue by Alfredo Alcala. Friedrich and Starlin also co-produce both the Iron Man and Marvel Feature issues.

Although the numbering begun in 1968 is continued, this volume represents the third attempt to launch an ongoing Captain Marvel title in less than five years. Once again this perseverance is almost certainly down to a desire to maintain the trademark at a time when DC had obtained the licence for the Fawcett Captain Marvel and would soon relaunch him on the world in his own title. US trademark law is big on the "use it or lose it" principle so Marvel Comics couldn't just rely on a registration but had to actively use the mark "Captain Marvel" in order to prevent others using it. This shows in the first few issues as we get a fairly generic superhero series with the only real twist being Rick Jones increasingly resenting sharing his physical space with Mar-Vell and resisting transformation no matter how dire the situation. The villains consist of Megaton the Nuclear Man and Dr Mynde, both men affected by radiation. Megaton has mutated into a solid form but is set to explode whilst Mynde is an ambitious scientist whose body succumbed to radiation poisoned so he transplanted his head onto a robotic body. Neither foe is terribly exciting and both die at the end of their first encounter. There's yet another change to Captain Marvel's set-up as his powers are altered so he is now reliant on solar energy for his powers and is noticeably weaker at night. A supporting cast is grown in the form of musician Lou-Anne Savannah and her uncle scientist Benjamin but all in all this is a series still searching for a purpose beyond trademark protection.

On first encounter Iron Man #55 seems an odd choice for inclusion as it doesn't feature Captain Marvel or any of the characters from his series. Instead we get the introduction of a new villain and his opponent. But that villain is Thanos and the opponent Drax the Destroyer, with the issue serving as a prologue to the best known storyline in this volume. Over no less than nine issues, with bimonthly publication making it last eighteen months, we get an extended tale of Captain Marvel's battle with Thanos, establish the Titan as one of the mega-villains of the Marvel universe. The epic spread beyond the pages of Captain Marvel itself, with Iron Man teaming up with the Thing to battle Thanos's minions the Blood Brothers in Marvel Feature #12, Moondragon being aided by Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own series and the Avengers taking on Thanos's armed forces in their series. Only the Marvel Feature issue is included but it isn't very critical to the ongoing plot and doesn't justify its presence here whilst other tie-in issues are ignored. I suspect the reason is that this inclusion/exclusion pattern appears to have been followed by all the reprints of the storyline going right back to the mid 1980s series The Life of Captain Marvel.

This storyline presents with a truly cosmic epic with a well developed backstory and characters. Over the course of these issues Captain Marvel battles first with Thanos's recruits such as the Super Skrull and the Controller, before eventually taking on the Titan himself. We get a broad scope reminiscent of Greek epics as we learn the history of the civilisation on Titan from its founding by A'Lars, brother of Zeus, under the name of Mentor, through to Thanos's rise, recruitment of an army and conquest of the moon and then sweeping outwards. We learn of how steps have been taken to stop them but they are not enough. And we see the effects as Thanos turns his attention to Earth in pursuit of the Cosmic Cube to further his ends. The Cube offers immense power but its ramifications aren't explored too much beyond a notable 35 panel page in which Drax is subjected to a reality warping experience. Captain Marvel steadily steps up to the point where his heroism allows him to triumph.

We get many new characters who have gone on to perform significant roles through the Marvel Universe and beyond into the films. There's Thanos himself, his brother Eros (later to use the alias "Starfox"), their father Mentor, Isaac the super-computer and Drax the Destroyer. Each is carefully sketched out as a distinctive being who advances the story in their own way. And there are the more cosmic entities. The mighty Kronos is introduced though like Eros he bears limited resemblance to the character from Greek mythology. From afar he has created Drax the Destroyer out of Moondragon's dead father. Even more mysterious is Eon, a blob that appears to be a hybrid of two separate entities and which summons Mar-Vell to transform him from soldier to cosmic protector. And then there's Death, a silent skeletal female figure in a robe who appears at Thanos's side. There are some status quo changes as well, with Benjamin Savannah killed off at the start but more substantial is Mar-Vell's transformation under the guidance of Eon. Now an even more powerful cosmic being with "cosmic awareness" of what is happening in the universe he bursts forward with a new light stream tail of photon energy. Unfortunately the other main visual change is his hair turning from silver to blond, a change that is impossible to notice in a black and white reprint. And it's my main irritation with an otherwise fantastic storyline that we get yet another change in the main character's powers. It seems it may be impossible for any intellectual property protection to resist constant tinkering.

Issue #34 is probably the best known single issue in this volume, featuring Captain Marvel taking on new villain Nitro to stop him stealing an experimental nerve gas with consequences that would be returned to in later years. Nitro is a villain with an interesting power, that of being able to blow himself up and then reconstitute himself. I suspect that in the 1970s it was possible to present a living bomb as a character without the wider connotations of suicide bombers (and it still was over a decade later when one of the last of the original Masters of the Universe toys was Blast-Attak, with very much the same character basis) but nowadays it would be much more daring to create such a being.

Also a sign of the times is the drug use on the music scene. Rick's new singing partner Rachel "Dandy" Dandridge gives him a capsule that she jokingly claims contains "Vitamin C". When Rick takes it in the Negative Zone, it causes him to hallucinate and through the mind link it also affects Captain Marvel. However this affects a process whereby their minds have been converging. Rick has previously discovered the ability to control Mar-Vell's body when the latter is unconscious and the two are finding themselves ever more drawn together with the implication they may be merging. The drug taking seems to have the effect of empowering them to ultimately separate and merge at their own choosing. Again it's highly doubtful such a cause would be used today. Equally brushed over more than would be the case today is a scene where, in a brief guest appearance, the Wasp tampers with the Living Laser's equipment resulting in his weaponry killing him. Some of these ideas were clearly slipping past during one of Marvel editorial's most turbulent periods.

However out of that turbulence comes another epic as Captain Marvel battles elements of the Kree across multiple worlds, culminating in a showdown on the Kree homeworld with the Supreme Intelligence who has been manipulating things all along. During the course of the epic Mar-Vell and Rick briefly go their separate ways but reunite after Rick discovers his music act is out of touch with modern audience expectations. Both men find their powers developing thanks to the Nega bands with each learning from the other about how to use the powers in new and imaginative ways. The two are finally separated but able to reunite when needs be, allowing them to more easily travel through space and enhance their fighting skills. Towards the end their minds are on the brink of merger, resulting in a showdown to re-establish their separate egos. Against this personal conflict comes an array of adventures, ranging from confrontations on Earth with agents of the "Lunatic Legion" such as Nitro and the Living Laser to a showdown on the Moon with the Legion revealed as blue Kree racists led by old foe Zarek in search of purity. There's a trip to the Watcher's homeworld, battles with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and a more personalised conflict with a creature possessing the body of Una, Mar-Vell's former romantic interest. A more whimsical tale takes Mar-Vell and Rick to a plant very like the American Old West where they have a showdown with the Stranger - but all is not what it seems. There's a return appearance by an angry Destroyer, now angry that his purpose in life has been destroyed by Captain Marvel. Then there's a world with a war between cyborgs and giant Kree robots called Null-trons, before the climax with the Supreme Intelligence. The later parts see first Rick and then Mar-Vell aided by a mysterious woman known only as Fawn, a manifestation of Rick's mental powers. This is a story with a big vision and scope, providing one of the earliest intergalactic Marvel epics, but it's also a quite personal tale about the relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick, showing how intertwined the two are and how each benefits the other.

Overall this volume shows some of the telltale signs of the character's origin as a trademark protection, with continuing changes to the powers and status quo, but by the second half of the volume it feels like actual character development rather than an endless search to find something that will work to keep the trademark in use. But beyond that there's finally a clear long-term idea as to what this series is about and it survives a change of writer. Rather than an alien operating amongst humans or a detached observer of humanity we get a strong series on a cosmic scale, with a mixture of menaces that threaten the whole universe and those that focus upon Marvel himself. The Thanos epic is the peak of the volume, even with the needless inclusion of the Marvel Feature issue, and shows a self-confidence that had been lacking for years. After that there are some questionable moments where the series shows its age with accidental killing of villains without consequences, drug taking and suicide bombers all being elements that would be unlikely to appear today. Whilst the second epic may ramble a little overall it still has breadth and imagination, putting the characters through a critical personal journey. The result is a series finally on the up and more than justifying its existence to its readers rather than just intellectual property lawyers. This volume is definitely the series at its highest so far.
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