Friday, 27 June 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 2

Essential Wolverine volume 2 consists of issues #24-47. The writing sees the end of Peter David's run plus a later fill-in issue, a brief run by (Mary) Jo Duffy and the start of Larry Hama's long run. The art includes a long stretch by Marc Silvestri, plus individual issues by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Bill Jaaska, Larry Stroman and Gerald DeCaire.

Coming from the early years of the Essentials, it's unsurprising that this volume restricts itself solely to Wolverine's main series and does not include his strips from Marvel Comics Presents, with the most notable storyline, "Weapon X", running during the same period. Understandably there's too much Marvel Comics Presents material for later editions to even try to correct the omission, but nor has the series been touched by the Essentials and given its own volume, so once again key Wolverine material has to be sought elsewhere, including a major part of his origin. Fortunately there are no overt references to the Marvel Comics Presents strip, and Wolverine's mysterious past often allows for introductions out of the blue so return appearances by characters introduced in the strip don't stick out, so on a raw reading it's possible to not even realise there were other adventures published that are not included here. But once that awareness is there the lost opportunity stands out all too well.

For those reading just the issues collected here, Wolverine's background remains mysterious to the readers and, at times, to the man himself, not helped by different writers seemingly taking separate approaches to just how much he appears to remember about it. In issue #25 we get offered a possible glimpse at part of his origin. Whilst guarding and babysitting the son of a crimelord, he tells a bedtime story about a Canadian boy who was cast out into the wilderness for being small and weak, but grew up with wolverines and learned to fight when trappers came. It's clear from the pictures just who the boy is intended to be, but is the story meant to be imaginary or is it in fact a true account of Wolverine's past? Later in issue #34 Wolverine thinks to himself that he can't remember a lot of his past and doesn't know how he came to be wandering around the Canadian wilderness. However an old Mountie slowly realises that Wolverine is both a ferocious corporal he served under in the parachute divisions during the D-Day landings and also a stranger he long ago shot at in the wilderness, mistaking him for the beast known as the "Hunter in the Darkness". Subsequently we discover Wolverine is familiar to some participants in the Spanish Civil War but he can't quite remember it until he and Puck get thrown back in time to it (with the complication that Wolverine starts partaking in events and photographs that Puck can't recall him being originally there for). Then Sabretooth claims to be Wolverine's father though a blood test soon disproves it, yet according to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. the claim is based upon a genuine belief, though he won't elaborate on this. Elsewhere issue #26 sees him relive part of his days in Japan and track down the murderer of an old friend. The whole result is a character who remains an enigma but it's not too clear if there's an actual overall plan that the writers are working to, or if they're just tossing out random ideas that will ultimately not all match up.

Peter David's two issues both have the aura of fillers, rather than any substantial conclusion to his run or latter-day revisitation. The first is a piece of macabre humour as an assassin called the "Snow Queen" finds her plans disrupted when a child steals her briefcase, leading to a chase through the back streets of Madripoor and a grim discovery at the end. The second is at the far end of the volume and sees Logan tackling a drug crazed mad man in suburbia who needs to be neutralised, whilst remembering how he and Silver Fox had a dog which caught rabies and had to be put down but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Jo Duffy's work also starts in filler mode, even though it drops in pieces about Wolverine's past in both Japan and the Canadian wilderness, but then switches into another feature common to the era - the multi-part "biweekly" saga when a book's frequency was briefly increased to twice a month (perhaps that's why there's no annual here). "The Lazarus Project" winds up serving as the winding down of the title's "Madripoor era", throwing in a guest appearance by Karma of the New Mutants and the writing out of Jessica Drew and Lindsay McCabe. The story sees Wolverine briefly lose his memory though in the process he experiences the atrocity of a village being wiped out for an utterly insignificant McGuffin.

The arrival of Larry Hama for what would be quite a long run sees a bold shift in the title's focus, with the Madripoor setting and the various supporting characters rapidly abandoned, albeit with a final brief storyline that also takes in a trip to Japan. Taking their place are adventures set mainly back in North America with an increased use of guest stars. Fortunately there aren't any crossovers within this volume, but it feels like the series is being dragged into being a mere offshoot of the main X-Men titles (the last issue in the volume is from about the time when a second X-Men series was launched) rather than continuing to carve out its own distinctive niche. It's a pity, but perhaps Hama didn't have enough confidence in the Madripoor set-up to make it continue to work. Or maybe reader demand wanted Wolverine on more traditional territory. Equally Hama may have been wary of repeating himself. By this time he had about eight years of the G.I. Joe books under his belt and he may have been conscious of having already depicted a man with ninja connections and a mysterious past so there was a risk of turning Wolverine into another Snake-Eyes. Instead Hama's run, or at least the early part reproduced here, takes the series back into the superhero mainstream.

That's not to say there aren't some occasional detours, such as "Blood and Claws" which sees Wolverine, Lady Deathstrike and Puck (from Alpha Flight) temporarily thrown back in time to the Spanish Civil War, with the complications that they are reliving at least Puck's past. Lady Deathstrike remains a constant theme back in the present day, with her Reavers preparing a trap with two robots, one a duplicate of Wolverine dubbed "Albert" and the other a five year old girl called "Elsie Dee" who is largely comprised of explosives. This leads into a lengthy story as the two robots gain increasing intelligence and start to think for themselves, with Elsie Dee coming to admire Wolverine even though she is programmed to get close to him and then automatically detonate the explosives within her. Both Albert and Elsie survive seeming destruction to keep coming back. Just to add to the complications are the return of Sabretooth and the appearance of Cable which is not at all a sales chaser at a time when he was one of the hottest X-Men characters and giving Wolverine a run for his money as the pre-eminent man with a mysterious past. The whole thing is interspersed with encounters with the Morlocks as well as with various one off killers. There's a mad man who enjoys torturing animals until Logan sets a real wolverine on him, and another who murders several pregnant women having discovered one of them will give birth to a baby who will grow up to be something special. On a different level is Molly Doolin, the vengeance seeking daughter of the Canadian Mountie who died pursuing the "Hunter in the Darkness".

Puck, Storm, Forge and Jubilee all make recurring appearances throughout these issues, but there's no real indigenous supporting cast introduced and developed to replace those from the Madripoor days. We're left with just Wolverine himself, a man with a limited past that generates some interest but which can also limit the opportunity for actual development since the past isn't being properly explored here (or the origin of his adamantium being explored elsewhere referenced here). Instead the main focus is on multi-part adventures with lots of action rather than a great deal of development. It was an early sign of the decompression movement that would see comics drawn out without a great deal actually happening in them. This volume also comes from an era when artists were becoming ever more prominent and at times comics slowed stories down just to emphasise the art. It's hard to resist feeling this was the forerunner of the Image style when Marc Silvestri would be one of that company's seven founders.

These issues were originally published in the early 1990s, which was the time when I first discovered Marvel superhero comics - perhaps a slightly later arrival than many but I plead the mitigating circumstances that Marvel UK had largely dropped out of superheroes for four years, focusing instead on licensed toy and TV tie-ins and that Marvel US titles had no distribution that I knew of in my home town (my local newsagent didn't stock any comics at all). I should in theory take to this volume with all the instinctive loyalty that most people have to their personal "Golden Age" in just about anything, with it being the time when they first got drawn in. But instead I find this volume rather washes me over. Perhaps it was because the comics market was simply so large at the time and Wolverine is a distinct niche appeal that didn't draw me in then and so these issues evoke no nostalgia whatsoever now.

It's a pity because whilst there are some good moments and issues within this volume - my favourite is issue #34 with the hunt in the Canadian wilderness - the overall volume sees the series dump its unique setting and tone in favour of a rather generic style. The result is a rather generic and less than spectacular run. Still it does get bonus points for being a series from the era that doesn't get sucked in to endless crossovers.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Essential Avengers volume 2

Essential Avengers volume 2 contains issues #25-46 plus King-Size Special #1 (the annual by another name) and also, in early editions, the story from Tales to Astonish #27 that introduce Henry Pym, later Ant-Man. The first half of the volume and the Tales to Astonish story are written by Stan Lee and the second half and the special are by Roy Thomas. Most of the issues and the special are drawn by Don Heck, with the last few by John Buscema and one by George Bell. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by Jack Kirby.

This volume sees a continuation of the general problem that the Avengers are a club of heroes assembled for no particular reason, though as time passes they accumulate more and more ties that keep them together. Within these pages are the first examples of several longstanding themes that recur time and again throughout the history of the team's membership. There's the first return of former members when the Wasp and Giant-Man come back, albeit with the latter now using the name "Goliath". There's the first cases of heroes hanging around with the Avengers without actually holding formal membership, with Hercules eventually granted it after several issues but the Black Widow instead choosing to retire. There are extended absences for individual members as first the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver go to sort out their powers and then later Captain America spends some time sorting out matters in his own strip. There's the first great reunion in the annual as "the Original Avengers join Today's Avengers", although with the Hulk absent it boils down to just Iron Man and Thor being drawn into a single great adventure with the regular team. And we see further confirmation of Captain America's central role in the team when he is unanimously chosen as the chairman for this reunion, being the link between the original and current team.

By this point the team's pretensions to being the Marvel version of the Justice League of America have been abandoned. With Marvel already having prominent teams of superheroes in the form of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, plus big name heroes like the Hulk and Spider-Man whose set-up made it impossible to slot them into this sort of team, it was simply impossible to assemble all the company's big name heroes into a single team. So instead the focus was shifted to mainly featuring characters who lacked their own strip and develop them in their own way. Captain America is still around as the lynch pin of the team but at times he's absent because of events over in Tales of Suspense. Notably by the time Giant-Man/Goliath and the Wasp return, their own strip in Tales to Astonish had ended, thus freeing them up to be developed here. Goliath gets some good material at first as he discovers he's trapped in a ten foot tall form, unable to change size without killing himself. This leads him to search for a cure, eventually enlisting the aid of scientist Bill Foster to strengthen blood cells.

Not all the tales show such advancement, and at times it seems as though the series is wading through leftover ideas from elsewhere. The very first issue sees the team's first encounter with Doctor Doom (at least until the retroactive one-shot Avengers #1&1/2 was published over thirty years later), but his primary motivation is just to impress the Fantastic Four and use the Avengers as hostages to lure in his most regular foes. The issue does once more raise the idea that Doom and Rang/Rama-Tut could somehow be the same person at different points in time, but it's an idea that has never worked for me and I think this is the last time it was raised. The next two issues see the team defeat an attempt by Attuma to flood the world and so once again it feels like the Avengers are mopping up leftovers from Fantastic Four, and this is just reinforced by an interlude involving the Human Torch's old foe, the Beetle.

The series does pick up a bit and start developing some of its own creations and introducing a few more foes, beginning with the introduction of the Collector. As is often the case with big name villains introduced in this era, his appearance and motivations are much tamer than he would go on to be. Here he could be a human for all that's revealed about him and the difference that it makes. This is followed by the first regular Avengers appearance of the Black Widow, brainwashed into once more serving the Soviet Union and now recruiting both the Swordsman and Power Man to battle the Avengers and try to recruit Hawkeye. Then we get a slight reversion to old Fantastic Four ideas in the form of a rather dull tale of a power struggle within a lost civilisation in South America, but it's hard to care for either the Keeper of the Flame or Prince Rey as they struggle over a cobalt flame.

We then get what is probably the best remembered tale in this volume as the Avengers battle against the Sons of the Serpent, a thinly disguised parody of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a story that puts the Avengers through some hard choices when the Sons take Captain America hostage and try to recruit the Avengers to their side. It's also one of the most overt examples of the series reflecting turbulence in the wider world, and it's to the credit of Lee and Heck that we are never left in any doubt whose side the Avengers are on even when Goliath has them pretend to support the Sons or when Captain America is impersonated. However the story ducks out on an uncomfortable truth by revealing the Supreme Serpent to be foreign Communist General Chen, rather than showing how such hatred can be home grown. And under a new writer the series is more casual when it comes to apartheid South Africa which is briefly visited in the annual, although it's not explicitly named as such but the presence of diamonds and what appear to be a sea of white faces are telling. Though the country primarily serves as a backdrop to Thor and Hawkeye's battle with the Living Laser, it feels rather casual to pass through a country with such practices and fail to even say anything. Equality is not something that only matters in a single country.

The story also sees a major step forward as the Black Widow comes to the Avengers' aid, having finally turned against the Soviets. From this point onwards she is on the path to becoming one of the most prominent of Marvel's female heroes, though it's a complex path with S.H.I.E.L.D. intervening to send her on a mission to China where it appears she has defected once more. The Avengers are mixed in their reaction to their new ally, with Goliath reluctant to see the Avengers turn into a "rest home for retired villains", but eventually they get to the point of considering her membership though her China mission and injuries prevent it from happening at this stage.

As with a number of other Silver Age Essential volumes, this one shows the end of Stan Lee's run on the title, with Roy Thomas succeeding him here, and once again Lee bows out on a cliffhanger in a rather underwhelming adventure. Although the Living Laser would go on to be a significant recurring foe, coming back even here in the annual, his first story sees him motivated by a romantic crush and feels rather tame. Had Lee left just one issue earlier he would have departed with the climax of the first Sons of the Serpent storyline, a much more impressive note to go out on. The Living Laser story also appears to have been extended at short notice as issue #33 ends with the caption "Next: Goliath changes!" but this doesn't happen until #35.

Roy Thomas's run begins by concluding the Living Laser story with the added twist of him seeking fame by aiming to help a revolution in Costa Verde, a Latin American military dictatorship. The story ends with both sides defeated and the remnants of the army declaring a democracy, but more notable is Captain America's declaration to the army "We wish in no way to interfere in your country's private matters!" Coming in late 1966 it's a surprisingly early declaration of non-interventionism, even if delivered at a point when the country's immediate problems are being seemingly solved. The subject of intervention in other countries is not something that can be easily debated in a few panels, but such declarations can at times feel like an over casual dismissal of problems and suffering around the world. On a lighter note the story sees Goliath regain the power to change size, having sufficiently healed his body. And there's a fun moment for continuity buffs as Captain America's shield gets destroyed by lasers and he has to resort to a new one - try matching that with the later position that his shield is indestructible and he's had it more or less since 1941.

The run continues with another forgettable set of foes in the form of the alien Ixar and his robotic Ultroids, though the resolution when the Black Widow exploits her non-Avengers status to threaten Ixar's life is a telling sign of how far she still has to travel. Then we get the arrival of Hercules, initially under the spell of the Enchantress, and he seems to be a substitute for Thor. There follows a brief encounter with the Mad Thinker, a further foe from Fantastic Four, and his brie team of henchmen the " Triumvirate of Terror", consisting of Hammerhead, Piledriver and Thunderboot but none are any relations to any others who may have used those names. In an epilogue to a storyline in Tales of Suspense, the team clash with the Sub-Mariner as they search for the Cosmic Cube, which ends up thrown away by the Mole Man. Yet another pair of Fantastic Four foes appear in the form of Diablo and Dragon Man, with the latter seemingly destroyed, and one is wondering if the team will get any big battles with more personalised foes.

It's not a long wait. Issue #43 introduces the Red Guardian, a Communist conscious counterpart to Captain America in every way, though curiously he's developed by the Chinese rather than the Soviets. In a fierce battle he nearly defeats Captain America but the latter is more experienced and only subdued by outside intervention, a point that annoys the Red Guardian's honour. In a twist he's revealed to be the previously assumed dead husband of the Black Widow and he meets his end nobly, sacrificing himself to save her. Still the story gives them both a degree of redemption, even though the Black Widow ends up injured and briefly retires from the costume instead of accepting Avengers membership. The final couple of regular issues see old foes from individual member's strips, with the Super-Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense now finally clashing with the whole Avengers, then Goliath's old foe the Human Top returns with the new name of Whirlwind.

The annual also features some old foes as the Mandarin assembles the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Living Laser, the Swordsman and Power Man as part of a plan to conquer the world. This story is the one most like the standard format for the contemporary Justice League of America as the threat comes in three less forms, resulting in the heroes splitting into separate teams to go to different locations to tackle each part before reuniting for the showdown conclusion. The addition of Iron Man and Thor just adds to the JLA influence as it results in something resembling Earth's Mightiest Heroes (a phrase not yet in use). As a one-off celebratory piece it works, but it's a good thing the regular series didn't get caught up in such a formula.

Throughout the volume there are various signs that the Avengers are all developing in different ways, though some more than others. Most notably Hawkeye is fast maturing and coming to respect Captain America even more, getting beyond the angry hot head he can be at times. However Quicksilver is increasingly concerned about attitudes to mutants and his thoughts are getting steadily more angry. The Wasp who returns to the team is more mature than before, contributing more in action as an equal member and rarely commenting on her male colleagues, though there is a lapse to her older habits when Iron Man and Thor briefly return. This is a team that feels ever more coherent and strong, showing why they stay together even if why they're there remains a bit of a mystery.

Overall this volume is okay, but not particularly exciting. It's critical in showing the development of the team and the on-off nature of its membership but beyond that it doesn't really excite that much or contain any issues that particularly stand out. Too often it seems to draw on the entrails from Fantastic Four rather than continuing to develop its own strong set of recurring foes and situations.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2 contains issues #21 to #50 of the series. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Ghost Rider, Doctor Druid, Doctor Strange and the Night Rider. The writing sees a succession of runs of steadily increasing lengths from Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie and Michael Fleisher, with Don Glut contributing one script. Most of the art is by Don Perlin, with an early run by Don Heck and issues by Gil Kane, Tom Sutton, Steve Leialoha and Carmine Infantino.

The same year that this volume was released also saw the launch of the first Ghost Rider movie, in my opinion the best one (not that there's a great deal of competition for that distinction). Although some of the details of both the origin and the Ghost Rider mythology were altered, it remained faithful to the basic concepts and gave some memorable moments, including a teaming of Johnny Blaze and Carter Slade, the original Ghost Rider. So too does this volume. Indeed there's much here that informs the basic backdrop of the film.

The early issues wrap up Johnny's career as a Hollywood stuntman and then he goes out on his own, riding across the West like some latter-day wandering cowboy, moving from situation to situation without ever setting down roots or growing a new supporting cast. Most of the existing characters are left in Hollywood to carry on as before. Also fading from his life with the end of their series are the Champions, though they've generally only made cameos here. Although he can still make all manner of stunt jumps when he needs to, the stunt performances are largely ignored to the point that people wonder what's happened to him. At about the same time that in the real world Evel Knievel was appearing in his final stunt show (although he didn't actually jump in it), Johnny is challenged by Flagg Fargo for his title of stunt champion of the United States and narrowly loses. It's a steady but strong shift in the character, reinforcing his tragic loneliness.

With just four Essential volumes and a total of eighty-eight issues (excluding crossovers, post series appearances and standby fill-ins only used later on but including the initial seven issues run in Marvel Spotlight), it's tempting to see Ghost Rider as a closed saga, with a definite beginning, middle and end. On the face of it this volume may be the longest section but also the least involved, with few of the big moments in his life. However at a more subtle level there's steady development throughout the volume as the relationship between the human Johnny and his demonic side evolves, first as Johnny discovers he can now transform at will and then as the demon increasingly takes over when in skeletal form. On more than one occasion the two are detached, whether because Johnny's spirit is briefly transferred to another human's body or because a magician separates the two or because Johnny has temporary amnesia and consequently is unaware of his demonic form, who in turn finds Johnny's mind is closed to it. More and more Johnny finds he cannot control his demonic side, who often resorts to ever more vicious methods, and wishes to escape it altogether but keeps finding he cannot.

Of course it's doubtful that any sense of a closed novel was considered at the time, with the continued turnover of writers and a drift into a formula as the wandering Johnny Blaze comes across trouble in one settlement after another. However the series is successful in taking the format and offering numerous twists and turns whilst also taking a big step away from conventional superheroics. This is a saga of a man searching for peace and trying to escape the torment he carries with him but all too often finding that he can't. Often he finds people and an environment where he might settle down and find real happiness, but time and again the curse of the Ghost Rider is there. Whether it's Johnny or his new found friends, especially the succession of women he meets, there is always a realisation that the demon is just too great a barrier to happiness and so he must continue his roaming.

Before that roaming begins, we have the last few issues of Johnny's days in Hollywood and a romantic triangle with Karen Page and Roxanne as he struggles to decide between them even though neither seems to actually want a serious committed relationship. Eventually Johnny realises that it's Roxanne who he wants but by then she has accepted the advances of special effects artist Roger Cross. Meanwhile Karen only wants to be friends. Karen's presence in the early issues may have inspired the use of the Gladiator, also from Daredevil, who is now after a device held by the old Human Torch foe the Eel. When the Eel is murdered, Ghost Rider is accused and Johnny has to clear his name, eventually resorting to using hellfire to arrange a simultaneous appearance to cover up his identity. The mastermind behind the Gladiator and new foe the Water Wizard is the Enforcer, whose identity is one of the weakest intentional mysteries of all time as, apart from a brief red herring suggesting he's movie producer Charles Delazny, it becomes all too easy to spot that he's actually Delazny's son. The remaining Hollywood issues are generally inconsequential with new foe Malice being just a guy in a funny suit with laser and vibration guns, and primarily seeking attention rather than offering a substantial origin. Then there's a fight with Doctor Druid over a misunderstanding about the Ghost Rider's nature. Add in anger and frustration about what he thinks is a serious relationship between Roxanne and Cross, and Johnny now hits the road. Roxanne does try to track him down but in the process she encounters the Orb who inflicts amnesia upon her. Johnny never finds out about this and she is last seen #28 as she accepts the claims of local cowboy Brahma Bill that they are sweethearts and goes off with him. Despite occurring in Roger McKenzie's first issue, Roxanne's situation is never touched upon again in this volume and now truly all the connections have been severed, leaving Johnny as just a man on the road with his demonic side, his clothes and, depending on the issue, a metal bike.

Out on the road Johnny encounters a handful of other heroes, starting with Hawkeye and the time-displaced Two-Gun Kid, followed by an encounter with Doctor Strange in which the magician's old foe Dormammu tries to use Ghost Rider to kill Strange. In the process Johnny finds his mind transferred to Strange's whilst Dormammu controls the Ghost Rider's body. Then at the end of the volume Johnny is thrown back in time and teams up with the Wild West hero the Night Rider against his traditional foe, the Tarantula (no relation to the Spider-Man foes by that name). Neither issue #50 nor the Handbook entry explicitly mention that the Night Rider is the first character to use the name "Ghost Rider", renamed in order to distinguish him from the more famous motorcyclist. (However this new name would prove to be a rather unfortunate choice for a man dressed all in white as it's also name used for members of the Ku Klux Klan.) But there are enough indications that Carter Slade and Johnny Blaze are sufficiently similar to justify the team-up in the double-sized issue.

The limited number of guest stars in this volume may have resulted in a very limited number of options for Handbook entries to fill up the page count, though there were still the alternative options of Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (although the latter didn't have an entry in the original Handbook, from which the four entries are taken, and would have had to have been lifted from the Deluxe Edition where the pro forma is slightly different). But the result is that two of the entries contain major spoilers for later volumes. The Night Rider entry is focused not upon the Wild West hero seen here but on his great great nephew seen in a later issue. (It also doesn't seem to know what an "ancestor" is, using the term to describe the later one.) But the Ghost Rider entry is worse, introducing names such as "Zarathos" and "Mephisto" some time before they turn up in the series (the back cover of the volume also uses "Zarathos" earlier than it should), as well as detailing the backstory of the demonic side of Ghost Rider and giving away what will happen in the issues that reveal much of this information.

The series continues to add a variety of new foes, but few last. There's the Manticore, an agent of the Brand corporation, rivals to Roxxon for corporate plots. Or there's "the boy who lived forever", a long-lived boy called Nathan with advanced mental powers that has enabled him to develop technology but the body and outlook of a boy, flying around in a spaceship with his own robots. The foes closest to the Western tradition come at the end, first as a company is building a dam that will destroy land sacred to Native Americans whilst some of the workers plan to loot a town and flood it. In reaction a traditional Indian spirit called the Manitou is summoned and then Johnny is flung back in time to the 19th century where he proves his true nature.

And then there are the more horror based foes. There are a pair of vampires with many bats at their command. The Bounty Hunter is another agent of the Devil, the ghost of a vicious 19th century bounty hunter who has been tasked to bring in fifty souls in exchange for his freedom. Darker still is "Death", manifest in the form of another skeleton on a motorcycle albeit without the flames. This "Death Ryder" challenges Ghost Rider to a racing and stunt duel across the desert, ultimately for Johnny's life. At another level are the various thugs and bullies Johnny meets in his travels, whether biker gangs or construction worker bullies or mobsters. Or there's a cult of death worshippers, which turns out to be a money making scam. Then there's the "Nuclear Man", an armoured and embittered scientist who has turned against nuclear power after his son-in-law was killed by an accident and his grandson was born deformed.

But as the series moves ever further from superheroics and back into horror, it often seems the real threat is the Ghost Rider, slowly asserting its own control and becoming ever more fierce, torturing foes almost for pleasure. Issue #37 is a partial homage to the origin of Robin, featuring a family of circus performers who get killed by the local mobster after the owner reneges on a debt; the sole survivor is a son who wants vengeance. But rather than taking in the boy as a sidekick, Johnny instead scares him away from summoning the Devil and, as the Ghost Rider, pursues the mobster to his death. It's a harsh reminder that Johnny is no great hero but a man burdened with a real curse. The reaction of those around him, especially the various women he meets, is mixed, with some scared off by him. Others are prepared to stay with him but Johnny is not prepared to put them at risk. There's one time when it seems he has found peace when he loses his memory and winds up as a mechanic for a female racing driver, but incurs the wrath of her foreman. Neither the amnesiac Johnny nor the Ghost Rider is able to access the other and it seems as though Johnny is at peace. However the rival foreman attacks him, restoring his true memory and forgetting his alternative life altogether. Another chance at escape comes when the magician Azaziah splits Johnny and the Ghost Rider; however the two prove unable to survive without each other, finding their energy levels much drained, and so Johnny has to perform the spell to reunify them. Later, after losing his title in the competition with Flagg Fargo, he briefly turns to drink in the hope of "keeping the demon at bay" but it doesn't have the desired effect.

Overall this volume offers more than it seems at first. Most of it may lack a supporting cast or recurring foes, but it shows a good way to handle the wandering hero who brings help to those he meets on his travels whilst at the same time balancing his curse. And the whole relationship between Johnny and the demon is steadily built up over these adventures as he steadily loses control and finds the biggest monster around is within him. The backdrop works well, making for a good latter-day western. It's easy to see where the first movie found much of its inspiration. It's just a pity the Handbook entries and back cover give away spoilers.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2 contains issues #26-52 and annuals #2-3. Many of the regular issues are written by Marv Wolfman; others are by Roger Slifer, Tom DeFalco, David Anthony Kraft, Ralph Macchio, Peter Gillis, Alan Kupperberg, Bill Mantlo, Mary Jo Duffy, John Byrne and Steven Grant. The art is by a mixture of Ron Wilson, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, John Byrne, Bob Hall, Alan Kupperberg, Chic Stone, Frank Miller and Jim Craig, with both Kupperberg and Byrne each writing & drawing a single issue. One annual is written by Wolfman and drawn by Sal Buscema whilst the other is written and drawn by Jim Starlin. With so many creators a separate post is invariably needed to carry some of the labels.

As is standard for team-up titles, here is the list of the guest stars in each issue.

26. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
27. Deathlok
28. Sub-Mariner
29. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
30. Spider-Woman
31. Mystery Menace
32. Invisible Girl
33. Modred the Mystic
34. Nighthawk
35. Skull the Slayer
36. Mr Fantastic
Annual 2. Spider-Man
37. Matt Murdock
38. Daredevil
39. The Vision
40. Black Panther
41. Brother Voodoo
42. Captain America
43. Man-Thing
Annual 3. Nova
44. Hercules
45. Captain Marvel
46. Hulk
47. The Yancy Street Gang
48. Jack of Hearts
49. Doctor Strange
50. The Thing
51. Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man
52. Moon Knight

Once again we have a mixture of big names who've been around since the early Silver Age and some of Marvel's newer 1970s heroes but also some imaginative steps have been taken to provide co-stars, whether they're a one-off monster in issue #31, Daredevil's alter ego in his day job as a lawyer in #37 or long-time supporting characters the Yancy Street Gang. Part of this is driven by a great use of ongoing storylines, with the first two-thirds of the volume taken up by a succession of multi-parters that flow well from one issue to another, handling the guest cast in a variety of ways. But also the Thing's character seems to have been slightly refined, and so Ben Grimm now much more likeable, making it easier to enjoy his adventures. Whereas Marvel Team-Up has tended to be a reasonably equal pairing of Spider-Man (or occasionally the Human Torch or the Hulk), Marvel Two-in-One is now working much more as a Thing series with guest stars coming in an out. There are, however, some exceptions to this.

Annual #2 begins with a caption that states: "Wait!! Don't read this story until you check out Avengers Annual #7, now on sale." Yet in all the many reprinting of the issue that I'm aware of (and that's quite a lot), this is the only one to appear without the Avengers annual by its side. There was a five year gap between this volume's publication and that of either Essential Avengers volume 8 or Essential Warlock volume 1, both of which carry the Avengers annual. Consequently we have here just the very last part of not only the story of Thanos's assault on the stars but also of Jim Starlin's whole Warlock saga and one of the most memorable of Spider-Man stories in which he is the catalyst for saving the Earth. But amidst all this the Thing is somewhat lost, despite being the regular star of the series. Here he's reduced to a virtual sidekick for first Spider-Man and then Thor, and doesn't directly contribute to the final outcome. It's as though he was only used so as to provide a spaceship to bring Spider-Man to the battle and then to be a piece of cannon fodder to drive home how powerful Thanos is when Spider-Man briefly chickens out. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the annual not being handled by the regular creative team, or of being the conclusion to a wider saga. Either can be a perfectly workable approach on their own, but when combined they produce an issue that feels heavily like an intruder upon the series.

A rather smoother use of the series to end storylines from elsewhere without just taking over the book comes in issues #35 & #36, which see the wrapping up of the saga of Skull the Slayer, the star of a very brief 1970s Marvel series that I've never come across before. Skull the Slayer told the story of an ex-soldier and three somewhat reluctant companions who flew into the Bermuda Triangle and found themselves in a land of dinosaurs, aliens and cavemen. The wrap-up here feels quite natural, with Ben drawn into the events as he test pilots a plane on his way back from the UK and flies into the warp in the triangle. At least it feels natural from reading Marvel Two-in-One - I'd be interested to hear the perspective of Skull the Slayer fans as to how smooth a flow they found the resolution in another series.

As well as wrapping up some characters, the series also gave a heightened profile to some others in advance of their own titles. Both Moon Knight and Spider-Woman started out as villains but became heroes by the time of their own titles. Moon Knight had already made the shift by the time of his appearance here but is still an unknown quantity resulting in some tense dealings with Ben. Meanwhile Spider-Woman breaks off the shackles of Hydra by turning on them and siding with the Thing, and in the process she discovers that what she thought was her origin is in fact false, setting her up for her own ongoing title. And her appearance here slots into ongoing events quite well - reading a number of these issues multiple times from the differing perspectives of following both the host and guest stars, it's often the case that one is served rather better than the other and depending on which character has led one to the issue can wildly change the perspective on it. Here the storyline sees Ben combine a mission to get critical surgery for Deathlok (following earlier issues when Mentallo and the Fixer brought the cyborg back in time and controlled him with the aim of assassinating the US President) with a holiday with Alicia in the United Kingdom. Or at least what Americans think is the United Kingdom - the geography of London is reasonable if a little condensed but a lot of the locals speak as though they went to the Dick Van Dyke School of Accents and there's a slightly absurd subplot in which a former Nazi collaborator tries to recover wartime currency printing plates, as though the resultant notes would resemble those still in circulation. The scene subsequently shifts to leftover magic from Arthurian legends, but in fairness this was the time when Captain Britain was unleashed upon newsagents. All in all the saga puts Ben through the ringer, especially when Alicia is briefly transformed into a monstrous spider-like being and attacks him. Fortunately she is soon restored but in the meantime it's heartbreaking to see Ben attacked by her and unable to fully respond for fear of making it impossible to restore her.

Ben also encounters tragedy in issue #50 which sees the Thing on a quest to regain his human form by taking a solution back in time to when he was at an earlier stage of development. However his younger self doesn't quite realise what's going on at first, leading to the conflict, which provides the cover to the whole volume. The issue serves to tidy up some visual continuity related to Ben's developing form in the early years, but also brings up a great confusion about how time travel works in the Marvel universe. Here it's stated by Reed Richards that Ben's past is "immutable" and any attempt to alter history merely creates an alternative universe which has no effect on him. It's not entirely clear if this rule only applies to an individual messing with their own timeline or if it's a more general statement that time travel cannot effect history at all. Either way it's an interesting approach to explaining how fictional time travel works and the theory would be used to great effect in a very memorable Transformers storyline some years later (Target: 2006). The problem is that this is a rule that hasn't been consistently applied over the years, with many Marvel time travel stories either seeing a change to established history or else the time travellers wind up causing historical events to happen, examples of both of which can be seen in the first volume. Consequently a lot of Marvel fiction that uses time travel as anything other than a plot device to bring characters together has been highly confused because different stories have followed different rules and not all of them have stopped to spell out precisely which rules apply. As a result issue #50's importance has been diminished but it was nevertheless a brave attempt to bring order to chaos.

The other stories are a mixture, ranging from the fun such as issue #51's poker evening with the Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man that gets interrupted by renegade army officer General Pollock's attack on S.H.I.E.L.D., to the rather forgettable such as annual #3 in which the Thing and Nova tackle the Monitors, an alien race who wiped out planets that do not meet up to their standards of perfection. It came out in the later stages of Nova's own title and is clearly a late attempt to boost the character's profile but it just sinks into the mire of overlong and forgettable annuals. Issue #44 is a team-up with Hercules in which he and the Thing tackle the monsters Y'Androgg, Krokarr and Manduu to free Zeus on Mount Olympus. Hercules is one of the more difficult characters to guest star because of the fantastic nature of his foes and exploits which can lead to rather outlandish tales, but here the problem is solved by having the adventure retold by Ben to children around a campfire, thus allowing for embellishments. Another fun tale comes in issue #46 as the Thing gets jealous of the Hulk's TV series and heads to Hollywood to get one of his own, only to wind up fighting a furious Hulk who has shown up to complain.

Other stories continue to offer a variety of threats and foes. In addition to those already mentioned, this volume sees foes from other series such as the Piranha from Sub-Mariner, the Jaguar Priest from Skull the Slayer, the Mad Thinker originally from Fantastic Four, Kinji Obatu who has now shed his identity of Dr Spectrum of the Squadron Sinister, first seen in the Avengers, the Cult of Entropy from Man-Thing now led by Victorious from Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales or Boss Baker the Skrull who lives as though he's a human 1930s gangster, originally seen in Fantastic Four. The series also creates some new enemies such as the elemental demons Fire, Aero, Hydro and Mud, or evolving the former leader of the Cult of Entropy into the Entropic Man. There's sorcerer Ennis Tremellyn and his slave Kemo, and ex-CIA mercenary Crossfire. The biggest foe introduced here is Machinesmith, although he would later be retconned into a pre-existing character. And there's even a daring move with a less than flattering portrayal of Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, though others are the primary villains in that story. Then there's issue #34 when an ugly alien hatches from a rock and is confused. It tries to greet and help the humans, even rescuing children from a burning hospital. But then frightened parents shoot it dead. As Nighthawk says "Yeah, there's a monster here -- but who's the monster? Mister, who's the monster?" As well as various new foes, the series also introduces what would go on to be a significant new setting when issue #42 sees the first appearance of Project Pegasus, the advanced energy research facility that will go to play a big part in his life in later issues.

Overall this volume shows a series that has now found a distinctive niche. Although still not the primary series featuring the Thing, it has nevertheless managed to give the character a good range of adventures that stand on their own merits, making him more likeable than before whilst also giving an enhanced showing to many other characters. The clever ways by which storylines are allowed to run over multiple issues whilst bringing in new characters. The series is now functioning smoothly.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2 - creator labels

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

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Omitted material: Marvel Two-in-One 21

Left out of Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1 is issue #21, which features a team-up with the licensed character Doc Savage (previously seen in Giant-Size Spider-Man #3 so I won't describe him again here). The issue is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Ron Wilson.

With Doc Savage based in the 1930s and the Thing in the 1970s it takes some ingenuity to bring them together. The first half of the issue is a split narrative as Doc Savage and his aides Renny and Monk are visited by a woman frightened by her scientist husband's plans to tap the power of the stars to become immortal, with the equipment draining the city's energy. In the present day the couple's daughter comes to the Thing and the Human Torch with a similar tale of how her brother is trying to recreate his father's experiments with similar consequences. In both eras the heroes rush to the site, although only in the present day do they take the woman with them, where their flying craft is accidentally hit by the cannon's beam, deflecting the energy back. It creates a temporal anomaly that fuses father and son together into one being called Blacksun and brings all the heroes together as they have to stop Blacksun. Eventually his powers burn out and he collapses, with Doc Savage and his companions returned to their own time before the Thing could get an autograph from his hero.

Like a number of team-up comics where the title heroes are based in different times, this one spends quite a bit of time setting up a situation that can bring them together without leaving too much time for actual interaction between them. It's also restrained by limited and confusing information about just what Blacksun is trying to do or how exactly he gains his powers. Since this is critical to the story's resolution the result is rather unsatisfactory. We're left with a very brief encounter between the Thing and Doc Savage, with multiple sidekicks in tow, with even less time than usual to explore how the two work together. There have been other cross-time team-ups that do a much better job at bringing the two heroes together, whether by having the regular star timetravelling or the guest star catapulted to the regular era at the start of the tale. Alternatively a story can not have the heroes meet and instead show them fighting the same foe in different eras. But here the story tries to both at once and fails at both.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...