Friday, 29 August 2014

Essential Moon Knight volume 2

Essential Moon Knight volume 2 carries issues #11-30 of his first series. Most of the issues are written by Doug Moench with some back-ups and/or fill-ins by Jack C. Harris, Alan Zelenetz, Denny O'Neil and Steven Grant. The art is mainly by Bill Sienkiewicz with other contributions, mainly on back-ups, by Denys Cowan, Jimmy Janes, Vicente Alcazar, Greg LaRocque, Keith Pollard, Joe Brozowski and Kevin Nowlan.

Issue #15 represents a minor landmark in US comics history as it saw the series shifted to become a direct market only title, also receiving an increase in both pages and price. Together with Ka-Zar and Micronauts, the title had experienced strong sales in comic shops but poor returns on the newsstands and this move allowed each series to survive and even specialise without the restrictions of the newsstands - for one thing the Comics Code Authority stamp disappears after issue #15. However it also made the title inaccessible to those without easy access to a comic shop (and there were several reasons why subscriptions weren't a viable solution for all) and it effectively marked the beginning of a slow market retreat to the ghettos of the comic shops. In cases where a book appealed primarily to the niche of buyers that had already moved over to the direct market it doubtlessly made more sense to do this than try to raise newsstand sales but in the long term it contributed to much of the industry deserting a broader market and making it harder to recruit new readers to keep up overall interest.

However the direct market switch brings with it a much more experimental approach. Story lengths now vary considerably, ranging from lengthy multi-part epics to stories that only take up part of a single issue. The rear of the issues are sometimes enhanced by features such as editorials, commentary by creators, guides to equipment, galleries of images and so forth. Even the covers experiment a bit including a striking black and white cover on issue #24, reproduced as the volume's cover. Only two guest stars appear in the direct market only issues and one is the Werewolf, appropriately returning after the conclusion of his own series to now encounter its breakout character. The character's intervening time is explained by having been on the run from a cult. The other is Brother Voodoo, stepping out of a similar limbo to appear in a story set in Haiti complete with zombies. Daredevil and his foe the Jester appear in one of the last issues also available on newsstands, and the Thing makes a two-page cameo billed on the cover of one of the first direct market only issues (an appearance probably planned when the series was still on general release) but otherwise the series keeps very much to itself. Again this makes sense given the direct market only format as it could needlessly annoy newsstand fans of other characters to deny them the chance to see a guest appearance. And the Micronauts and Ka-Zar, the only other characters for whom this would not be an issue, are not exactly naturals to appear in the grim and gritty world Moon Knight inhabits.

In contrast to the turmoil of the first volume, this one shows a remarkable degree of stability with a firm focus of the character's crime fighting side, with occasional dipping into his mercenary past but with the Egyptian deity elements largely confined to statues that may have powers or it may just be the beliefs of those around them. The supporting cast is primarily that already established albeit with the addition of Detective Flint, a police officer who regularly supplies Moon Knight with information. For the most part the supporting characters remain on the sidelines though the very first issue here deals with Frenchie's revenge when an ex-girlfriend reappears only to be murdered for failing to deliver a supply of cocaine.

Marlene is the main exception, with some prominent roles throughout the run and her continuing displeasure with the way Moon Knights various identities are becoming personas in their own right, feeling that she has helped create a monster. One storyline sees her brother Peter, a doctor, suffering at the hands of his patients who has been twisted by drugs into Morpheus, a being who cannot voluntarily sleep and who can project nightmares into others via a mental link with Peter. At first it seems that Morpheus could be a recurring foe but his powers are neutralised in his return appearance when Peter exploits the link to feedback psionic energy, dying in the process. Marlene's grief is wisely not dwelt on but it adds to her growing dissatisfaction with Moon Knight's approach and identities to the point where she decides to leave him. When new foe the Black Spectre turns out to be an outside candidate for Mayor, Marlene agrees to go under cover but comes to believe in Carson Knowles and sees Moon Knight's public accusations as persecution. She subsequently discovers the truth and returns to him but it's a reminder of how strong and independent she can be. In another storyline she winds up taking the job of bodyguard for a terrorist and the series all but shows her sleeping with him as part of her mission. The character is a far cry from the average superhero girlfriend.

And Moon Knight is not the average superhero. His identity crisis continues to bubble away, with ever increasing - and sometimes contradictory - insistence that he is any particular persona at a precise moment, to the confusion of those around him. During his second encounter with Morpheus he experiences a nightmare in which Steven Grant, Jake Lockley and Marc Spector all attack him, showing up his worst nightmare. Later on Grant is sitting at home when he witnesses a vision of Marc Spector angrily lashing out at others but unable to finish himself off, with Grant commenting that through Moon Knight they are all paying for Spector's sins. Of all his identities it's Marc Spector that he tries to avoid the most, yet Spector is his original persona. For the most part Moon Knight seems able to keep on top of the confusion but there are indications that he may eventually break down into a mess of contradictory and warring selves. Otherwise the character continues in what appears to be a Batman mould but coming out some years before Frank Miller reached Gotham City it seems the flow of inspiration was not all one way. Moon Knight continues to be put through a variety of problems both at home and abroad, including facing the loss of everything he has, but he manages to come through thanks to his guile and gadgets.

His Marc Spector persona is not completely sidelined as a number of issues carry back-up stories highlighting aspects of his career, including some set during his days as a mercenary - there's a particularly dark story where he's commissioned to steal a box from one sculptor for another and it turns out to contain the head of the Gorgon Medusa. In a reversal of the traditional myth Spector uses a mirror to turn the head's back on itself and upon its wielder. Other back-up stories range from present day tales by alternate creators, some of them perhaps auditioning to take over the series if needs be, to tales of the statue of Khonshu and how the statue scared a crook in a museum into locking himself in a sarcophagus or how it seemingly used its power to clear a minefield and help a bunch of stereotypical British soldiers in American uniforms to win the battle of El Alamein. Such tales wouldn't appear in most Marvel series but here they help to enhance the background to the series and were doubtlessly a welcome change from adverts when the series's price increased.

Although a lot of the issues have single part stories mainly dealing with one-off urban villains, there are some that take the series in different directions and introduce potential recurring adversaries, though not all survive. As noted above the threat of Morpheus is neutralised early on, but in the opposite direction the character of Stained Glass Scarlet seemingly starts out as a one-off, a sorrowful nun turned mother turned recluse living in an abandoned church who finds herself shooting her gangster son dead. But subsequently she becomes a crossbow-wielding vigilante, declaring war on mobsters in general and Moon Knight finds himself ultimate missing on purpose and letting her escape. The difference between Moon Knight, operating outside the police but usually with their tacit approval and individual support as he generally seeks to bring crooks to justice, and Scarlet, operating completely on her own as she seeks to execute them, may seem a hair split at first but it's a core dividing line as to how vigilantes are usually portrayed in comics and the source of much philosophical debate. Elsewhere the Black Spectre explicitly models himself on Moon Knight but his failed venture into politics somewhat restrains his potential for reuse. Elsewhere the foes are one-offs - various mobster types and terrorists but also corrupt police officers and those who seek to purge the force of them as well as a man driven mad by childhood abuse seeking vengeance on his just deceased father.

The longest story in the volume is an epic adventure that pits Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie against a group of terrorists hell-bent on the destruction of the west. The Third World Army is a coalition of terrorist groups from across the political spectrum, headed by the anarchist Nimrod Strange. Privately disavowing their public political goals, they are fanatics who will take aid from right and left wing dictatorships only to play them off against one another to bring the world to its knees. Few take them seriously but the Mossad has realised their true threat. When Benjamin Abramov, Marc's oldest friend, is gunned down in the mansion by the organisations top assassin the Master Sniper, it begins a journey that takes Moon Knight to Switzerland, Israel, Lebanon, the Indian Ocean and finally back to New York. Along the way Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie have to infiltrate the organisation, with Marlene becoming one of Strange's elite female bodyguards and harem. Strange himself adopts armour to become Arsenal and almost kills Moon Knight before departing to hijack multiple oil tankers and use them to destroy Manhattan, in a plan lifted directly from US anti-terrorism planning. The pace of the story is relentless and it doesn't pull its punches either with a number of atrocities depicted including the gunning down of a congregation at a synagogue. Arsenal becomes another foe whose long term potential is sacrificed on the altar of a dramatic resolution to the story but it works. It's a tough storyline that combines the global threat with the personal element as Moon Knight seeks to complete Ben's work as well as repay Arsenal for his slights. At a guess this storyline (in issues #17 to #20) was the first to be prepared for the direct market and it shows a willingness to stretch beyond the confines of the Comics Code authority without being gratuitous simply for its own sake. It's a good example of how the series adapts to changed conditions and sets out to offer something truly unique.

In general this is a series that does well to rise to the challenges set, continuing to offer a hero with a very unusual identity situation whilst also adapting well to its changed market position and experimenting within the format and outlet. There are some themes handled here that are more adult than those found in the Comics Code Authority books on the newsstand, but never once does it feel like its being puerile or gratuitous just to show off its freedom. Instead it continues to build a solid and distinctive series, using the expanded page count to explore multiple stories and features and allow other creators onto the characters without feeling like quick fill-ins. Sienkiewicz's art looks amazing in black and white and Moench's scripts remain strong, producing quite a solid volume.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Essential X-Factor volume 2

Essential X-Factor volume 2 reprints issues #17-35 & Annual #2 plus Thor #378 in which Ice-Man teamed up with Thor with consequences in the main series. Bonus material includes the original character design for Archangel, the cover of the relevant issue of The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Apocalypse, his Horsemen, Archangel, Rusty Collins, Infectia, and Ship. The regular issues are all written by Louise Simonson, with Tom DeFalco plotting one, and the annual is by Mary Jo Duffy. Most of the art is by Walter Simonson with individual issues by June Brigman, Sal Buscema, Steve Lightle and Terry Shoemaker, whilst the annual is drawn by Tom Grindberg. The Thor issue is written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema.

This volume has a cover design unique amongst the main Essentials; only the Handbooks and Marvel Saga have anything similar. The covers from issues #24 to #26 combine to form a continuous image which is wrapped around the whole cover, albeit with a transparent dark band on the spine. One consequence is that the word "Essential" is missing from the cover, perhaps a reason why the non-reference Essentials reverted to the earlier design for another year. It's a pity as I feel this layout is especially good at showcasing the artwork whilst displaying the credits on the cover.

The non-regular issues show a few varied problems of inclusion and placing. The Thor issue contains a guest appearance by Ice-Man that sees his powers increased out of control and this is followed up directly in X-Factor. However the Thor appearance is a two-part story and only the second part is included. It would have probably been better to have either both parts or none. The annual demonstrates a problem from 1987 as the regular series has some quite tight continuity between issues since the story flows from one to the next, thus making it hard to place the annual at a clear point where the team's day out in the park and trip to the Moon can take place between issues. The fact that it's by a different creative team from the regular series doesn't help and it feels as though the only character to have any lasting changes is Quicksilver, who otherwise is completely absent from both this volume and its predecessor. Otherwise this tale of X-Factor, Franklin Richards and Quicksilver both being caught up in Maximus's latest bid for power over the Inhumans, complete with a guest cameo by Power Pack, just feels inconsequential and easy to ignore despite efforts to delve into Jean's feelings about Scott and Phoenix. Here the annual gets placed between issues #23 & #24, which doesn't reflect the original publication dates either (that would be between #20 & #21), but this is the point where X-Factor gets teleported off to Apocalypse's Ship and not exactly a time for them to all go for a walk in the park. Still I'm not sure where the best alternative place to put it actually is.

Notably absent from the volume are any of the other issues involved with "The Fall of the Mutants". This was an unusual crossover as none of the three main titles - X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants - crossover in terms of storyline but instead in terms of the theme of big status quo changes. However a number of other Marvel titles did tie in, mainly with the events shown in X-Factor and there are references here to what happens in Captain America and Power Pack. The former's absence doesn't seem to impact on the story at all and is easily explained away by dialogue and captions but the latter might have helped to show how the kids got involved and the full fate of Pestilence, both of which are a little confusing when presented on their own. Also absent is annual #3, which is the opening part of the "Evolutionary War" crossover and which clearly takes place during this volume, not just because of the time of publication and the status quo depicted but also because the crossover's final part, in Avengers #17, takes place at the same time as issue #34 and is responsible for the Beast's absence from the latter issue. With the regular series seeing storylines flow from issue to issue and numerous cliffhangers, including at the very end of the volume, it would have been quite doable to push issues #34 & #35 back to volume 3 and run the annual here, with its precise placing no more awkward than that for annual #2. This would also have the advantage of putting more of the build-up to the "Inferno" storyline into the same volume as the main events (and is the reason why volume 3 is the place to consider the X-Terminators limited series). If the Essentials are ever revived this volume and its successor would be amongst the top contenders to have the contents reshuffled, providing of course that both new editions are out at the same time and it's always possible to get all the material in just a single set of volumes (which was a problem for a while when the new editions of Essential X-Men were staggered).

As for the regular issues, this volume charts the team facing great despair, destruction and death yet rising to the challenge to the point that "The Fall of the Mutants" really should be entitled "The Rise of the Mutants", ending with the team having achieved an amazing public relations success. Their victory over Apocalypse and saving of New York is lauded by the public, with their earlier deception explained away, and not only do the team become popular heroes but so do mutants in general. Individual members face redemption and restoration, but also some very dark moments affecting not only them but those around them. The series flows well with strong developments that enhance all the main characters. A recurrent theme is friends heading over to the other side, though in one case they had been secretly plotting there all along. The smallest scale Caliban, who becomes the first rescued mutant to be promoted to the full team, but he repeatedly feels inadequate as his powers can only track mutants and cannot contribute to fights. This weakness, and the team's failure to address it in time, leads to his accepting Apocalypse's offer of power when all the others reject it. It's a very brief rise and fall, and it's surprising how little its dwelt on by the others, suggesting that perhaps Caliban may have been right.

What is heavily dwelt on is the Angel's return. Having been rescued at the last minute by Apocalypse, Warren is now transformed into Death, the fourth Horseman of Apocalypse, despite not actually riding a horse. Warren is full of hatred from the circumstances of his downfall and so now armed with his new metal wings and leading War, Famine and Pestilence he is a force to be reckoned with, upping the tension no end. However he sees the consequences of his actions when it appears that Ice-Man has been killed and so Death turns on Apocalypse then flies off, staying his distance because he still feels abandoned by X-Factor and instead seeking his revenge upon the true author of his downfall, Cameron Hodge.

X-Factor's publicity director has already been causing the team problems with his campaign stirring up anti-mutant hatred, but it soon becomes clear he has an ulterior agenda. In the course of his aims he forced through the court order that amputated Warren's original wings then persuaded his old university roommate to leave all his money to X-Factor - with Hodge in control. It all goes on "the Right", an organisation Hodge has set up to destroy mutants, complete with some silly looking but deadly battlesuits. Hodge's motivations are rooted in class based superiority, believing himself to be part of the real homo superior, but there's also a hint in his conversation with the demon N'Astirh that his attitude to Warren is more complex. He talks of his private contempt for Warren even before the latter grew his wings, with a product of old money being scorned by that of even older money, but it's hinted that Hodge's feelings towards Warren are more complex and began in admiration, and also that his kidnapping and killing of Candy Southern may be to prevent anyone else being happy with Warren. Whilst the general idea of the team's business support having his own agenda works, some of the detail is offensive. Today it would be impossible to present a bigoted organisation under such a blunt name as "the Right" and rightly so but I don't know if anyone made a public fuss at the time about such a gratuitous swipe. The spurned homosexual theme is far more subtle but it does drift into a rather cliched theme that really should be avoided. Fortunately issue #34 ends with Warren decapitating Hodge, bringing closure.

The previous issue brings another form of closure as the Beast comes full circle. During the battle with Apocalypse's Horsemen, a touch by Pestilence causes Hank's mind to deteriorate whenever he uses his strength and over subsequent issues he steadily regresses. However new foe Infectia, who has the ability to rearrange people's bodies into monsters known as "Anti-Bodies", accidentally kisses the Beast and causes a chain reaction which restores Hank's mind but in his furry form. It has been less than three years since he lost the fur and next issue captions suggest this was not a popular move, so we see one further step in undoing some of the early set-up.

Not all the developments are reversionary, with Ice-Man suffering from his powers being so enhanced that he has difficulty controlling them and eventually has to resort to using one of the Right's restraining devices. Before then his main source o help has been the young mutant Leech, who now joins the other rescued mutants full time. Also added to the line-up is Rictor, a young mutant with the power to cause earthquakes. Ice-Man oscillates between being light-hearted around the children to showing a much more serious side when circumstances dictate it, slowly growing up. The younger mutants are at times sidelined but they're shown steadily developing control of their powers and proving their worth on the occasions they go into battle, especially when fighting the Xartans, aliens from the early days of Thor now impersonating the Avengers or, on a lesser level, dealing with gangs. Otherwise they settle into life aboard Ship, their new living headquarters, though show independence when they opt to take the Christmas gifts that have been showered on the team and donate them to children in hospital. Towards of the volume another status quo shift is foreshadowed with the announcement that the young mutants will be sent to regular schools to get mainstream education, not something they are looking forward to.

Meanwhile Cyclops and Marvel Girl are rekindling their relationship, with Jean coming to terms with the fact she has to compete with the memory of not one but two women who were identical to her, whilst Scott has accepted that his wife and son are dead when he gets the shock news that Madelyn had been alive all the time only to die with the X-Men, but Christopher is still alive. This leads into the big storyline at the end of the volume as Scott tries to find Christopher, eventually succeeding at the orphanage he grew up in only to clash with both demons and Nanny, a walking, talking metal egg who kidnaps children and has their parents murdered. The storyline isn't fully resolved in the volume but there's clearly a lot more building up. Unfortunately Nanny herself is too comical a foe to take seriously, even if her Orphan Maker sidekick has the horror of being one of the kidnapped children.

Although "the Fall of the Mutants" propels X-Factor and mutants in general to great public acclaim, there are dark clouds on the horizon with the passage of a Mutant Registration Act requiring all mutants to register their powers, but the response by team members is nuanced. Elsewhere it leads to increased tensions and fears. Meanwhile something almost magical is happening with everyday things coming to life in New York whilst the demon N'Astirh is plotting and seeking multiple allies. It all serves as a strong cliffhanger to carry things forward.

There are some individual elements in this volume that are silly or offensive, but in general it shows the series at full force, never resting but instead building things up and continuing to make this a very different series from the other X-Men books. The main cast are put through a tough set of situations but rise to the challenge and come out triumphant.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Sampling Millie the Model 100

Some long running series are unrepresented in the Essentials. From time to time I'll take a look at another modern reprint of some of the series.

In recent decades Millie the Model has largely languished in obscurity. There's been the odd appearance in various other titles and a couple of short series that have updated her in one way or another, but nothing's really lasted. At the same time her original stories have been almost completely untouched by reprints.

Despite the Millie the Model series lasting 207 issues plus a dozen annuals over twenty-eight years and spawning multiple spin-offs, I was only able to find one issue that's had any modern reprints. And it's appeared no less than four times in the last decade. Issue #100 was reprinted in issue #16 of the Marvel Milestones series back in 2006. That in turn was then reprinted in the Models, Inc. collected edition in 2010. Meanwhile the original issue was also reprinted in the Women of Marvel Omnibus edition in 2011 and it also seems to be the only issue available digitally. It's a pity that the same issue has been used so often but that may indicate the rest of Millie's tales need remastering before they can be reprinted.

So it's to issue #100 we turn, which is cover-dated January 1961. Nearly all the stories are signed by Stan Lee but artist Stan Goldberg is uncredited. There are six stories, a reminder of an earlier era of comics when there were many more stories in an issue. Also there was less concern about continuity. This is seen with the first tale "How Millie And Chili Met..." which also retells how Millie came to work for the Hanover modelling agency. Over the years this story would be told several times - and the details could vary. So here Millie was a typist until she was sent to the agency and Howard Hanover talked her into modelling. In contrast there's another version where she was a country girl who dreamed of being a model and came to the city to pursue that goal. Just as DC readers didn't stop to ask about the different versions of Superman's childhood or how Aquaman got his powers, I doubt Marvel readers were yet taking note and comparing.

"You, Too, Can Be a Model!" sees Millie visit a modelling school to give a talk and get caught in a comedy of mistaken identity. "Movie Madness!" is a two-page gag about none of the agency's models being suitable to appear in a movie - of the life of Millie the Model! "Girl Talk!" is another quickie as Millie and Toni discuss Chili. "A Kiss for a Miss!" sees Millie and boyfriend Clicker on a park bench and kissing. "Who'll Go On the Show??" is a tale with a moral as the girls await a  producer coming to pick a model to go on TV, with the discovery the young man also visiting is the producer's son.

With no story lasting more than five pages this is really just a collection of extended gags and the characters are frequently caricatures - Chili is especially bitchy whilst Millie is written as rather a ditz wandering through success by accident instead of the confident young career woman she has been on other occasions. In general the comedy is just too telegraphed and lightweight. The cartoony style does not help either.

This issue includes a text story entitled "Summer Vacation". This features completely one-off characters and here tells of a schoolgirl working a summer job and finding a new boyfriend. As also seen with Rawhide Kid, these text stories seem to have been included purely to qualify a comic as a particular status of periodical for one reason or another, and although usually fitting the series's genre they don't seem to have gone further. Maybe they were reprints or written for a general pile to be shoved in wherever.

One of the notable features of the Millie titles was the way readers could send in designs for fashions and/or hairdos and these would either be redrawn for standalone features or even used in the stories in a sign of reader interaction beyond just sending in letters. (This practice would also be used on the Patsy Walker titles.) The stories in this issues include contributions from readers as follows:
  • "How Millie And Chili Met..." by Anita Marie Carter, Catherine Studer, Karen Stevenson, Shirley McClain and Linda Zacharias.
  • "You, Too, Can Be a Model!" by Molly Slocum, Susan Harrison, Donna Elam, Marlene Baron and Glenda Butcher.
  • "Movie Madness!" by Jean Montgomery, Pedi Duggan and Piper Ann Pickrell.
  • "Girl Talk!" by Shelley Simpson, Pat Gibbs, Oliva Maniguez, Linda Silver, Marcia Allen and Judy Sorter.
  • "A Kiss for a Miss!" by Melvin Stewart.
  • "Who'll Go On the Show??" by Rita Rys, Ellen Gutknecht, Willma Slone, Jenny Currie, Pat Henderson, Linda Franklin and Pia Westerberg.
The feature pages include:
  • "When Millie gets Married" featuring a wedding dress designed by readers Cynthia & Mary Davis.
  • "Millie's Fun Page" featuring designs by readers Lucille Caso and Barbara Trock.
  • "Millie's Fashion Pin-Up" featuring designs by readers Sue Paulk, Diane Spyinkowski, Bonnie Gail Seymour, Nancy Balerud and Gay Goodenough.
  • "Millie's Cartoon Cut-Out" featuring designs by reader Kathy Foreman.
It's a sign of how even before the Fantastic Four Marvel was going out of its way to make readers feel more involved than even just the letters page would allow. The prospect of seeing one's own designs in print must have spurred some creativity and I wonder if there are any fashion designers or hair stylists who started out in the pages of Millie the Model?

In general this issue is a real disappointment. It's just a collection of jokes, some of them distinctly unfunny, with the lead characters poorly portrayed. Unfortunately if cover galleries are anything to go by it's probably representative of the majority of Millie's history but I strongly wish one of the "soap opera" issues from the mid 1960s was also available that could show the characters in a much better light.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2 contains the character's 1982 one-shot (volume 2), the first eighteen issues and first annual of his 1987 series (volume 3) plus Marvel Fanfare #51, a story from Epic Illustrated #1 and a promotional article from the promotional magazine Marvel Age #52. Epic Illustrated was an anthology magazine that allowed creators to retain ownership. The Marvel Fanfare issue contains what would have been the first issue of a limited series set on Earth rather than the ongoing cosmic series we got when plans changed. The only thing I can spot missing is the chapter of the history of the High Evolutionary in the annual.

The one-shot is plotted and drawn by John Byrne and scripted by Stan Lee. All issues of the 1987 series, including the annual, are written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Marshall Rogers, Joe Staton and Ron Lim. Englehart also writes the Marvel Fanfare issue which is drawn by John Buscema, with an introduction editorial written & drawn by Al Milgrom. Lee writes and Buscema draws the Epic Illustrated story.

It's that last story which the volume kicks off with and it just demonstrates all the problems with the character until 1987 as he explores the edge of the universe. It's a vague, philosophical peace set retroactively during the years when the Surfer worked for Galactus. Along with the late 1970s graphic novel it just reinforces the view that it was impossible to find anything solo to do with the Surfer other than retreads of his debut story. As a short one-off piece reuniting the original series's creative team it's a nice touch but there's nothing to suggest that the Surfer needed a new series in the early 1980s.

Nor does the 1982 volume 2 one-shot. Drawn by John Byrne at the height of his powers, it's a visually impressive spectacle but a lot of the storyline is retreading old ground as once again Mephisto uses Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer and once again an attempt to escape the barrier imprisoning the Surfer on Earth ultimately fails. There are some new ideas such as Galactus returning to Zenn-La to take further retribution for the Surfer's betrayal, but this feels somewhat at odds with the portrayal of Galactus that was developing at the time which made him less a being of emotions like revenge and more a cosmic force of nature. In light of these developments it seems strange that Galactus would bother himself with such a petty indirect revenge, or for that matter give the inhabitants of Zenn-La a day to evacuate the planet before he consumed its energy and left a husk of a world behind. Oddly the state of Zenn-La, and the power the Surfer gives to Shalla Ball to heal it, will go on to be significant elements driving the ongoing series but the one-shot itself falls firmly into the category of endless retreads. It's amazing that anyone thought there was any mileage in an ongoing series at all.

Indeed the original plan was for a twelve issue limited series set on Earth, with the completed issue #1 eventually showing up in Marvel Fanfare a few years later. It's a nice bonus to have in this volume as it allows glimpses of the original plans for the series but it also shows that Marvel still didn't quite get it. It's clear that subsequently a great deal of thought was put into working out what had gone wrong with the Surfer's earlier series and avoiding the same mistakes. Steve Englehart wrote a multi-part essay on the character's history that appeared on the letterspages of the first three actual issues and which is reproduced here; in this essay he identified the too expensive format, slow paced stories that devoted more attention to art than plot advancement and the general aura of failure surrounding the lead character. The Marvel Fanfare issue falls into some of these traps - the mid 1980s comics market may have been a little more favourable to higher priced series but double-sized books were still less attractive and seen as overpriced. Keeping the Surfer trapped on Earth restrains his appeal by denying him the chance to soar the spacewaves and instead it leaves him looking an ultimate loser. It also makes a mess of his getting caught up in conflict with the Kree. And lurking in subplots for future issues is Mephisto, who had been vastly overused and needed a rest. There's some new ideas with an alternate start to the latter-day Mantis storyline - here she's living in Connecticut under an assumed name and raising the child she had with the Cotati - but in general the issue feels too much like a 1960s throwback, with John Buscema's artwork unfortunately reinforcing this effect. It shows some signs of ideas but it's still clear the Surfer needed to break free of the barrier and the baggage that had accumulated, and soar the spacewaves again. And that is exactly what we got in the end.

By whatever means the decision was taken to instead launch an ongoing regular sized series in which the Surfer was put back into his natural environment and really allowed to soar. The series opens with the statement "Space is infinite!" and this sums up the approach taken. In the space of just one issue the Surfer escapes Earth - the method itself proves to be ludicrously simple - and gets a pardon from Galactus, permanently ending the exile. The second then addresses life on Zenn-La and shows that life has finally moved on with Shalla Bal now the world's Empress and slowly leading a restoration of the planet's life force - a role that leaves no opportunity to marry the Surfer. Thus the Surfer is released from ties to both worlds, although he still maintains contact with them and seeks their safety as the series progresses. The stage is now set for a truly cosmic adventure.

I must confess a bias as this series was the first Marvel US title that I ever collected, although I didn't come on board until a few years later and had to catch up via the back issue boxes. As a result this is one of the few Essential volumes where everything (bar the Epic Illustrated story) is familiar to me from the original issues, though I lack experience of the original pace. Collected together it's easy to see how the whole thing was planned as an ongoing saga, building up a variety of different concepts and ideas into one overall coherent whole.

Two main themes dominate these issues. One is the second Kree-Skrull war as the two galactic empires conflict once more. This time round there is the complication that the Skrulls have all lost the ability to change shape due to genetic bomb. Though it occurred in a couple of other series' annuals not included here, I've found the mechanism behind this plot device to be rather silly, even if the results are highly effective. At the same time the Skrull homeworld has been destroyed and the Empress killed, with five warlords claiming the throne. The result is a paranoid race desperate to survive that gets sucked into war, in part due to external manipulation. The Kree aren't in the strongest position either, with racial tensions undermining their efficiency and driving the Supreme Intelligence to insanity, leaving the empire in the hands of Nenora, a Skrull spy trapped in the form of a Kree. The Surfer at this stage is trying to keep Zenn-La and Earth out of the conflict yet finds himself drawn into local conflicts with representatives of both sides, not least due to a Skrull impersonating him. As a result the war drags on throughout most of the volume, making for a tense backdrop to the universe and feeling suitably epic by not being over in a mere six issues.

A more direct threat comes in the form of the Elders of the Universe, gathered together for what I think is the very first time. A mixture of pre-existing characters such as the Grandmaster, the Collector, the Gardener, the Contemplator, the Possessor, Champion, the Runner and Ego the Living Planet, and new ones such as the Astronomer, the Obliterator and the Trader, they are seeking to remake the very universe. It's an audacious plan but it seems credible given the way it's laid out in multiple steps to defeat first Death then Galactus and finally Eternity. It's also set out over a long time, building on the Contest of Champions limited series and also a storyline in the 1987 Avengers and West Coast Avengers annuals (neither of which is included here). Their conflict with Galactus comes in two phases, first in an assault using the six Soul Gems (later renamed the Infinity Gems) and then the consequences of Galactus consuming five of the Elders and the others being scattered across the universe and beyond. This leads to a trip into the magic realm of Lord Chaos and Master Order, with a chilling sequence as the guest starring Sue and Reed Richards are mentally pulled in very different directions. The result is a conflict with the In-Betweener, and the final issue is a grand battle with Galactus. Elsewhere the search for another Elder, the Contemplator, leads to the first appearance of the space pirate Reptyl and his sidekick, the walrus-like Clumsy Foul-Up.

The Surfer also develops his relationships, slowly opening up but he soon responds to the more relaxed approach of some of the women he encounters. As discussed above, early on he cuts his ties with Shalla Bal, and subsequently he encounters Mantis, now occupying a living plant body with the ability to replace itself and transfer from planet to planet, and the source of the information that sets him against the Elders. She and the Surfer soon become enamoured with one another as they set out to stop the Elders, but it doesn't last long as the Gardener blows her up just to distract the Surfer when securing the final Soul Gem. However a back-up story in the annual shows Mantis resurrected on Earth albeit with amnesia of all her adventures in space and sending her on the way to following things up in the pages of West Coast Avengers. Meanwhile the Surfer is spending ever more time with Nova as they undertake missions together and getting ever closer to her. The Surfer's relationship with Galactus in their post exile encounters is also much easier than could be expected.

The first annual came in a year when Marvel opted to do a crossover between all of its special issues, and the result was a sprawling 11-part saga. Now I've written a bit about "The Evolutionary War" before so I won't rehash my thoughts about the pricing strategy, but the crossover as a whole is fundamentally flawed by the need to find reasons for each title's hero(es) to get caught up in the High Evolutionary's schemes. This annual is the third part of the story and goes for the approach of the Evolutionary trying to expand his knowledge of genetics by trying to map the DNA of the Silver Surfer. The Surfer at this stage has left Earth - this is in fact his first return to the planet since escaping - and it's not clear if the Evolutionary is trying to direct human evolution towards the form of an alien humanoid transformed by a cosmic entity, or if he's just trying to fill in a gap in his library. Nor does he bother to undertake the task himself but instead asks the Eternals, one of the more confusing races in Marvel continuity (they were originally created to be outside it and provide an alternate explanation for the heroes and deities of ancient history; however they were since added to a universe that already had the Greek Gods running around), and the whole thing occurs because the Surfer just happens to be looking in on Earth again. The entire plot just doesn't work and it's little surprise how easily the Eternals just give up on the Surfer or how (in one of the back-up strips) the Surfer rapidly ditches his resolve to investigate the Evolutionary's scheme in favour of responding to a distress call from Nova and Galactus. However the story does seek to advance one of the series's own plotlines by resurrecting the Super Skrull with the implication that he alone holds the key to restoring the Skrulls' shape-changing abilities and in turn offers hope of ending the war. There are two back-ups in the annual that introduce Ron Lim as the new penciller for the series; one focuses on Nova as it sets up plotlines for the next few issues and the other resurrects Mantis but that storyline is carried over into West Coast Avengers. In general this annual is a sign of the mess that the giant crossovers create and it's to its credit that it does its best to advance its own series's plotlines amidst having to contrive a nonsensical encounter to tie in with a wider storyline.

Overall this volume shows the second ongoing series taking a very positive approach to the Surfer's character, ditching the exile set-up and the aura of negativity that had surrounded him. It also avoids well-worn scenarios, particularly Mephisto using Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer in pursuit of his soul. Instead it puts the Surfer into his natural environment and runs him through a high intense space saga. The additional material included here works as an indication of how easy it would have been to get things wrong, but the main series shows how to get it right.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1

It's eighteen years to this day since Mark Gruenwald passed away. As a special tribute here's a look at one of his most personal of projects.

After avoiding it for a while, it's time to take a full look at the original Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe from 1983 to 1984. Originally intended as a twelve issue limited series looking at the-then active characters, it was extended during its run to include an additional three issues comprising the "Book of the Dead and Inactive" and the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia". All fifteen issues are gathered in Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1 which, like all of the reference Essentials, forgoes the standard cover design of the day in favour of a recoloured version of one of the original covers. The editor and head writer was Mark Gruenwald, with the lead writers being Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown though others also contributed, along with so many different artists that it won't be practical to do a standard set of creator labels beyond the trio themselves. Nor would it be wise to run a full list of every single character, team, place and piece of equipment covered.

The format is straightforward with an alphabetical roll of characters. Most get a full page, a few have two pages and several others share pages. There are also pages devoted to teams, albeit mainly just listing all the members, bases, locations and other critical points. Each issue has an appendix of brief text entries that list inactive, deceased and minor characters and races. Most character entries come in a pro forma with the following details:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Legal status
  • Former aliases
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual features
  • Powers
  • Weapons
Additionally there's a full frontal shot of the character.

Not all entries carry every one of these details. It's notable that at first the entries are brief and the "origin" just does what it says on the tin. Later on the entries get longer and longer, with the pictures shrinking and the "origin" getting closer to a full "biography" entry. Notable deviations from the pro forma come with a number of artificial beings such as Ultron or the Supreme Intelligence, who instead get short essays. A similar approach is taken with locations. Teams are just described briefly before a table showing the faces of all members. At the end of each issue is a section devoted to alien races. There are four entries on each page with the following pro forma:
  • NAME
  • Origin Galaxy
  • Star System
  • Planet
  • Habitat
  • Gravity
  • Atmosphere
  • Population
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Type
  • Eyes
  • Fingers
  • Toes
  • Skin color
  • Average height
  • Special adaptations
  • Type of government
  • Level of technology
  • Cultural traits
  • Names of representatives
  • First appearance

There's no standard format for the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia", with some entries in text descriptive form accompanied by a picture whilst others have detailed diagrams, sometimes with cutaways.

Initially I thought this series had only been released in the direct market as it seems the perfect example of something that would appeal to the hardcore comics fan and survive in the print-to-order environment but would not have sufficiently wide appeal to make it viable in the sale-or-return format. However it's a revelation to discover that most of the covers have the telltale "CC" on them and the newsstand format cover box, though the cover art sometimes lacks the barcode box. I guess either it had broader appeal and/or Marvel was unwilling to shut out fans who didn't have a comic shop near them. (One of the first ever actual US comics I read, albeit a DC, was from around this time and included an editorial response to heavy complaints about the inaccessibility of direct market-only material.) Curiously the covers to #13 & #14 use the direct market versions even though it seems these issues were distributed on the newsstand as well.

Although the main sources for each entry are the original comics, there's also an attempt to tidy things up, particularly in the approach to describing powers with a degree of real science creeping in. I'm in two minds about this approach - on the one hand it does help to ground the characters in a greater deal of realism than hitherto, but on the other it's ultimately impossible to explain some of the most famous origins and powers in anything but fantastical terms, and so attempts to impose scientific common sense onto Silver Age and Bronze Age fantasy just feels like an attempt doomed to fail. It gets particularly silly when trying to impose rational scientific explanations upon vampires, treating them as a disease and trying to rationalise how the stake through the heart and sunlight bring grief to them. Fortunately the powers of more overt magical characters such as Doctor Strange are left as magic.

Given that some characters have appeared in a variety of stories from either different creators or the same forgetful creator, there are often contradictory depictions of origins and powers. The Handbook entries try to cut through the mess with comments such as "contrary to some accounts" to tidy up powers and occasionally rationalise the origins by adding explanations to cover multiple versions and differing details. However the entries don't always match one another - there are three separate entries for Rama-Tut, Kang and Immortus but the details don't always match up, most obviously in relation to just how long Rama-Tut's first reign lasted or whether or not they have any known relatives. Elsewhere the entries can't agree on the correct term for the relationship between the Sub-Mariner and Namorita (they are first cousins once removed). But some entries do their best to seek to explain continuity errors and a failure to learn from past mistakes such as the Kang et al ones noting that repeated time travel has resulted in numerous temporal divergents. It's one way to sort out differences in characterisation and more imaginative than the Kingpin's entry which just declares his personally taking part in a theft to have been out of character. There are some omissions in the tidying up - in particular there's a lot of confusion stemming from the Eternals being originally conceived as standalone characters in their own universe but then dropped into the Marvel universe where they heavily overlap with a lot of characters taken directly from Greek mythology. Oddly it's only the entries for Thena and Zeus that really tries to explain the relationship between the two.

The Handbook generally sticks to the position that the Marvel universe began with Fantastic Four #1, even giving this issue as the first appearance of "Earthlings" aka humans. Most of the Golden Age, Atlas Age and western heroes are given a "First modern appearance" entry, side-stepping whether or not their adventures happened. However I note that the Rawhide Kid's first appearance is given as Rawhide Kid #17, which came out over a year earlier than Fantastic Four #1. So this would make the Rawhide Kid the founding member of the Marvel universe. That'll make for a fun rewriting of the history books.

Some of the location pages are eye-openers such as the entry for Europe that shows most of the real world borders of the time, although someone forgot the UK-Ireland border, as well as where the various fictional countries such as Latveria slot in. Curiously Transylvania is shown as separate from Romania - had a Transylvanian separatist been using Marvel as a propaganda tool? Sometimes the diagrams show influences that have been less obvious on the comics themselves. For instance it was only when looking at its depiction here that I spotted just how blatantly the Guardians of the Galaxy's spaceship Freedom's Lady has the shape of an upside down USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Black and white only rarely makes things hard to follow but it's amusing to see panels showing the uniforms for all eight levels of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and they're all identical uniforms; presumably colour is used to distinguish between them.

The changing plans for the series result in a handful of characters such as Dracula and Banshee receiving entries both in the main run and also in the Book of the Dead and Inactive. Usually the former entries are just a few lines in the appendixes, but Dracula has full page entries in both sections as the last few issues rapidly caught up with a major change in the status quo of not just Dracula himself but of all vampires on Earth.

Who gets an entry can be surprising at times - it's particularly odd to find the one-off Spider-Man foe Belladonna with a half page entry but I guess at the time there were plans to reuse her, especially as Spider-Man had so few recurring female foes. And the reprint offers its own surprise by including the entries for Rom, his armour and weapons - either nobody spotted them or someone at Marvel cut through the uncertain ownership & costs and shelled out for a licence just for those pages or else they found a good enough legal explanation to include the pages without it.

The "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia" contains a wide variety of pieces of equipment, ranging from Spider-Man's Belt Camera to the Ultimate Nullifier. It's an odd addition for the final issue of the series and seems to have come from the fan enthusiasm of the likes of Mark Gruenwald. I can't imagine an equivalent appearing in most comic companies' or franchises' character guides but its presence here is a nice final touch for fandom. In general this whole volume serves hardcore fans best, offering a chance to get to know all the obscure details about so many different characters.

Back in 1983 to 1984 this series must have been amazing for Marvel fans. Today I'm less convinced about its usefulness, since there have been several subsequent editions and the rise of both computer databases and the internet has provided far more detailed information than paper encyclopaedia style books can ever hope to carry. Since this volume came out in early 2006 at the start of what turned out to be the most intense year for releases of the Essentials, it's doubtful that this one's release denied a story volume a slot so it can't be blamed for the failure to produce final volumes for some of the series. This is also not a volume that's best read continuously but rather one to dip in and out of as and when is needed which just increases the questions about its usefulness. There is an argument that this is a snapshot of the Marvel universe at the very end of the Bronze Age. But that's not the most necessary thing needed and so this still feels rather excess to requirements.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1 reprints the Hulk stories from the first fifteen issues of the Hulk's late 1970s black & white magazine series, entitled The Rampaging Hulk on the first nine issues and then The Hulk! from issue #10 onwards. A bonus is a short story from Incredible Hulk #269 which addresses the continuity of the magazines. All but one of the magazines' strip stories are written by Doug Moench; the exception is by John Warner. The art is mainly by Walter Simonson, Keith Pollard and Ron Wilson with other contributions by Jim Starlin, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. Also included is a text story from issue #10 that is written by David Anthony Kraft & D[wight] Jon Zimmerman and drawn by Ernie Chan plus the Moon Knight back-up story from issue #15 that crosses over with the Hulk story, written by Moench and drawn by Sienkiewicz. The Incredible Hulk story is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema.

Looking back at the period before the mid 1980s it's amazing just how restrained Marvel used to be about giving popular characters additional titles. Even when they did succumb to producing a second book it was significantly different in some way - a quarterly, a magazine or a team-up title instead of just a second ongoing solo book. The main exceptions that I can think of were Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man and A Date with Millie/Life with Millie/Modelling with Millie but otherwise everything was sufficiently different so as to not be interchangeable. It's unsurprising that the Hulk wound up getting an additional book at around the time when his TV series was gearing up to launch. Agents of SHIELD may now be challenging for the crown but up to now the Incredible Hulk is Marvel's only real success with live action television. But boldly this was a series that stood on its own, not only in a different format from the existing monthly but also taking place in a different era.

Adventures retroactively set earlier in the careers of established characters were still rare at this stage in Marvel's history. Some of the Second World War heroes had had a variety of wartime stories, most notably the Invaders, but otherwise Marvel's history was largely confined to reprints, What If?s and the occasional substantial flashback to prepare a modern story. And of course Marvel continuity has long had an ambiguous relationship with material printed before Fantastic Four #1, so even the Invaders and the wartime adventures of Captain America could be excused as replacement material. But now the Hulk was given his own retroactive series set during an obvious part of his career but using the setting in a less than obvious way.

Maybe it's because of the brevity of the original series but the Hulk's earliest adventures have attracted many latter day creators to them. Perhaps it's because the Hulk still had his secret identity and so the stories felt the most superheroey. It could be down to the various early cartoons also basing themselves on this period. Or it could just be the sense of a truly classic era, helped by brevity cutting it off at a clear point instead of fizzling out after several years. Whatever the reason creators have often returned to those days to add more tales. Unfortunately some have been more successful at reaching them than others and this is one of the less successful versions.

The first problem is that the series rapidly ditches the status quo of the Hulk circa 1963 in favour of a global epic that could frankly have been placed at almost any period in the character's history up to this point - and in fact, as I'll come to below, would be a better fit elsewhere. So there's very little of Bruce maintaining his secret around the Gamma Base or the classic dynamic with Betty and Thunderbolt Ross. Later on in the run there's an encounter with the Sub-Mariner who has just lost his people once more but again the character's history and personality is such that it doesn't take much to generate a fight with him at just about any point in his history. The last couple of issues in the sequence try to add something to the history of the Avengers by bringing the five founders together for the first time. Now it's probably true that there is no dialogue in the Avengers' history that explicitly says "And we had never come together before the battle with Loki" but this encounter still feels like a very awkward addition to the team's history, undermining the dynamics seen in the first issue because there was little reason to have discovered they could form a team on the second meeting if they hadn't done so the first time round. Also the series is nominally set in 1963, being one of the last times I'm aware of when Marvel time explicitly matched publication time. However this series doesn't feel like a nostalgia piece, if that's possible at a gap of only fourteen years (which seems a rather small gap but a lot of classic literature was set about as many years before publication) and instead it just feels like an alternate modern take on the Hulk. Indeed at times the series actually forgets it's set in the past, such as when Namor is searching Rome for the "Main Command" and gets told the war ended "thirty years ago" - approximately accurate for 1977 but not 1963. And although the main ongoing plotline about the alien Krylorians trying to invade Earth, including using shapeshifting to disguise themselves amongst us, may reflect some of the paranoid "they walk amongst us" science fiction of the original era, the execution feels much more late 1970s than early 1960s. The same is true of Bereet, a renegade female Krylorian who befriends the Hulk and Rick and helps them fight her race, complete with her many special gadgets. The character is quite well depicted as an advanced, liberated woman but again doesn't feel like someone who would have appeared in such a story in 1963, even if the author was making an effort to have a strong female role like Marvel Girl in the contemporary X-Men or Wonder Woman.

But the biggest problem is the Hulk himself. The "Savage Hulk" is the main personality written in the first nine issues, although the art varies between the classic "Savage" look and the original short haired neater look. Furthermore at this stage of the Hulk's history the transformation to and from Bruce Banner was controlled by exposure to gamma rays, albeit with some bodily resistance creeping in. But here we get a Bruce who changes into the Hulk when stressed and whose only control over the process is to deliberately work himself up into a tense state. Now only a very small handful of the original Hulk stories were reprinted in the 1970s so it's possible Doug Moench assumed he could just depict the more familiar version of the character with nobody noticing. However when reprinted the original stories were also back in print, courtesy of both the Essentials and the Omnibuses, and so the discontinuity stands out the more. The whole thing feels like a bad exercise in nostalgia. And it seems these problems were noticed at the time, leading to a shift in direction from issue #10 onwards and then a later story set out to tidy up the mess.

"Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary what IS it?" proclaims the volume's back cover. It turns out the first nine issues were a metafiction, a film made by Bereet for the inhabitants of Krylor, who are rather more tame and isolationist than their depiction suggests. In the space of five pages Bill Mantlo writes off the entire of the first nine issues, possibly in response to years of questions in the letter columns about how the adventures could have taken place. It's a blunt solution to the problem, though not unprecedented (Marvel had already used metafiction to write off the adventures of the original Two-Gun Kid). Maybe another writer could have produced a multi-part tale that managed to preserve the issues within continuity whilst explaining away the fundamental anachronisms but it would probably have taken too long after so many years. Instead, we get a simple five-page hand wave and that is it.

With issue #10 the magazine undergoes a transformation. The stories are now in full colour, though that doesn't make much difference here as it seems in both the 1970s and the 2000s the respective black and white pages were produced with colour "burned in" to create an greyscale effect. But the series has also shifted to the present, though there's none of the Hulk's status quo from his regular comic and these tales could in fact take place at almost any point in the history of the Savage Hulk. The series has taken its cue from the television series but doesn't want to contradict the comic. So we still have Bruce Banner with his classic look (instead of "David Banner" drawn like Bill Bixby) transforming into a talking Hulk, but rather than interacting with his usual supporting cast, fighting monsters and being pursued by the military we instead have Banner travelling the world alone, seeking both peace and a cure and getting involved with a succession of localised problems. There's the occasional discreet acknowledgement of the television series, most notably in issue #14 when Bruce uses the alias "David Bixby".

The foes are generally one-off non-powered ones of the type who could have easily stepped out of the television series. We get a mixture of unscrupulous businessmen of one kind or another, carnival thugs, terrorists, immoral scientists and fanatical military types. A scientist's experiments with gamma radiation accidentally turn him into a monster who fights the Hulk whilst the military are developing "Cybortrons" - robots mentally controlled from afar by soldiers - but that's the extent of the more fantastic. But in general this feels like an attempt to draw television viewers into the comic character without all the wider elements that would be unfamiliar to those who'd only seen the screen version.

The stories themselves don't pull their punches with some quite brutal deaths, including the casual gunning down of first a reporter infiltrating a mine and later an ill woman who tries to get help when a hijacked aeroplane crashes. Issue #11 focuses on an unfortunate boy who is being routinely beaten by his father. Elsewhere there's racism on the streets of Chicago, paranoia amongst scientists and the military and thugs attacking the isolated. Once again the magazine format shows how to tell strong stories free from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority but without getting gratuitous for the sake of it.

The artwork throughout the volume is generally good but the showcase nature of the assignments can undermine visual continuity. And occasionally there are some unfortunate results - Walt Simonson's pencils on issue #2 are inked by Alfredo Alcala but the printed result feels like a pencil and crayon effect. Perhaps they were aiming for something stylish but it just doesn't come off. But on a better note are the painted covers. They don't always reproduce so well in black and white, and I'm not persuaded the best choices of issues #1 & #9 were made for the volume's front and back covers, but they are an impressive set of mainly standalone images. A decade later several of these were used for the early issues of the Marvel UK series The Incredible Hulk Presents and they proved highly striking on the newsstands as they must have been on the original magazines a decade earlier.

As can often happen with the Essentials, this is a volume of two halves and it's more obvious than most. The first stage is a retro-based epic that totally fails to evoke nostalgia for the original era or exploit its setting and it's easily forgotten, with the retcon to hand wave it away proving surprisingly effective. After that we get a stand alone series of present day tales that could almost have come from the television series and which prove surprisingly effective. There's a real determination to offer something more than just standard Hulk stories in a different format publication, and on the second attempt the series achieves this. It's not the most essential of Essentials but it gives the old magazine series a good revisiting.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Omitted material: Power Man and Iron Fist 73

Missing from Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1 is issue #73, which features an encounter with the licensed character Rom. It is written by Mary Jo Duffy and drawn by Greg LaRocque.

Rom is a toy that I only vaguely remember seeing in the Action Man catalogue. He was released as a standalone toy in the States; an action figure with light up features and weapons. He was imported to the United Kigdom by Palitoy to be part of their spaceman line of Action Man figures in the early 1980s but in general the toy wasn't a success. However there was a tie-in Marvel series that lasted seventy-five issues and several annuals, and the character made many appearances in other Marvel titles.

As I previously suspected this issue is the missing link in the subplot about the relationship between Colleen Wing and Bob Diamond, showing how the two get together for the first time. But it's also the first part of a crossover with Rom's own title. Here we get a glimpse of just how terrifying the alien Spaceknight can seem to humans as he lands on the streets of New York and then starts pointing weird lights at them before shooting a select few with a ray gun, leaving just ashes on the street. Power Man and Iron Fist get called in by first the pimp of a victim and then by the Fantastic Four and take on Rom only to discover the truth - he is destroying alien invaders called Dire Wraiths who have infiltrated human society. Such is their level of influence that they're able to suppress many reports about Rom, preventing most humans from discovering the truth. There's an inevitable battle owing to the initial misunderstanding before all three heroes join forces against a group of Wraiths and then agree to work together further over in Rom's own title.

As is often the case with small crossovers, the opening part is largely a set-up to get the various players working together before the main action elsewhere and so this issue can seem a little light on plot. But instead we get some quite good horror as we experience Rom from the perspective of the unfamiliar, and it's a chilling sight. There are some intriguing moments such as when Rom's Analyser can't scan Power Man and later the Neutraliser cancels Danny's iron fist, showing the Spaceknight to be a truly formidable force. By this stage Rom had come a long way beyond his humble toy origins and works well here. Unfortunately this does slightly sideline the actual stars of the series but overall the issue keeps true to the book's general direction and makes the most of the unfamiliar.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1 contains issues #50 to 72 & 74 to 75, comprising the first third of the merged series. Issue #73 is absent, due to it featuring a guest appearance by Rom whom Marvel no longer holds the rights for. Bonus material consists of a couple of in-house adverts for the series but it's clear from the advertised prices that these come from later on. The writing sees the end of Chris Claremont's run on the characters, a brief stint by Ed Hannigan and then an extended run by Mary Jo Duffy with the odd plot contribution by Bob Layton or Steven Grant. The art takes a while to settle down with a brief run by Trevor Von Eeden before an extended one by Kerry Gammil; other issues are drawn by a mixture of John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Mike Zeck, Lee Elias, Marie Severin and Alan Weiss.

The idea of merging one weak selling title into another series has been common place throughout the history of publications, not just comics. However, often "absorption" would be a better term because one title would make little contribution beyond a small addition to the cover logo and maybe the odd feature that wouldn't last long. But occasionally the fusion would be on equal terms, with both halves at the forefront throughout the rest of the series's life. Power Man and Iron Fist was one such series.

Taking a streetwise product of the blaxploitation genre and pairing him with the rich but other worldly product of the martial arts craze was not the most obvious of moves. Indeed I'm not certain who came up with it, though as the merger coincided with a run on Power Man by the Iron Fist creative team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne there's an obvious place to start looking. But whoever had the idea, there was little to lose as both characters were slumping in sales as their respective crazes were dying and the alternative was most likely cancellation. Instead an odd couple teaming up permanently was tried. It wasn't without precedent at Marvel - there were some similar themes and half of the locations in the teaming of Captain America and the Falcon, whilst Iron Fist's solo title had already teamed up a practitioner of oriental fighting methods with a streetwise black in the form of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, the Daughters of the Dragon. But it was still an awkward pairing. What makes it credible is that it takes a number of issues before the two are in permanent partnership and even then the differences between them are brought up from time to time. But wisely the series isn't played for laughs even though odd couples from very different backgrounds with all the problems and conflicts that arise from them are staple fare for sitcoms. We get the odd lighter moment, such as Power Man having to crash at Iron Fist's place whilst his own home is rebuilt, only to find his partner's place just makes him uncomfortable. Or when we see how Iron Fist's upbringing as first a pampered rich child and then a member of a hidden civilisation have left him lacking some basic knowledge about and skills for life such as the value of money or how to control a vehicle. But these are individual aside moments and instead the focus is invariably serious. Indeed this is a book that doesn't shy away from pain, with some especially brutal maimings and deaths shown with all their consequences. The Heroes for Hire have noble motives but they inhabit an increasingly gritty world.

The early issues in the volume are surprising in that it takes a while, and several writers, before a permanent partnership is established between the two. I'm informed that the legally registered name of the series did not switch from Power Man to Power Man and Iron Fist until issue #56 (although the legal info on the inside front cover of this collected edition draws no such distinction; either I'm misinformed or whoever prepared the Essential's information made a mistake), which almost matches the fictional solidification of the partnership. Were Marvel's editors nervous about the combination even after the launch and so hedged their bets so that they could quickly return to a solo Power Man series if needs be? That's more plausible than it being a deliberately planned story arc running over seven bimonthly issues and a variety of creative teams. But once Mary Jo Duffy arrives the series quickly finds a firm footing for the rest of the volume, cementing the series as her defining title.

If there's one particularly awkward aspect to the series, it's the whole "Heroes for Hire" concept. It made sense for Power Man on his own to be working as a mercenary as he was a man of limited means and whose criminal status meant it was impossible for him to find a sufficient paying day job that would supply the funds needed to be a hero - in particular to keep up a constant supply of shirts. But Iron Fist is independently wealthy and the co-owner of a business even if he hands over the day to day running to his co-owner Joy Meachum once they've resolved some personal matters. He has so much money he never wants for anything and indeed at times just doesn't know the meaning of it. So why does he need to earn money through super heroics, a vocation traditionally provided for free, and where the jobs can wind up as being little more than glorified security guards? It's an aspect to the series not really cleared up - perhaps this is why Power Man is initially placed working instead for Colleen and Misty's agency, Nightwing Restorations - but as the series progresses there's a steady diminution of focus on big corporate hiring, although as Power Man maintains his old office above the cinema there is still an outreach to the ordinary person on the street. They also make a point of going off duty at 5pm each day to maintain their principles.

The series maintains many elements from both characters' solo titles, starting with the supporting casts. Because Power Man maintains his office above the cinema, we still get to see D.W. Griffith and Toby, and even the occasional appearance by the notorious soft drinks machine or its replacement. Iron Fist is still seeing Misty Knight and in turn her partner Colleen Wing is also around a lot. Misty was a police officer before losing her arm to a bomb and the impact of having a cybernetic arm is explored several times, including when she chillingly relives the moment. Her former police partner Rafael Scarfe is the series's most regular cop, and he often works in conjunction with Assistant District Attorney Bill Hao under DA Blake Tower. Elsewhere Iron Fist often works out with Bob Diamond, formerly of the Sons of the Tiger. He and Colleen eventually become an item but they seem to rapidly going from tensions hiding attraction to dating that I wonder if the missing issue #73 has a key scene that resolves this. Colleen also gets a memorable reunion with her father as he recovers his memory. Meanwhile the Heroes for Hire business is managed by lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, creating tensions over some of the contracts he accepts, with the office itself managed by executive secretary Jennie Royce. The most notable character to disappear is Power Man's girlfriend Dr Claire Temple who has been kidnapped one time too many and decides that she can no longer handle Luke Cage's life and he cannot give it up so they go their separate ways. Luke subsequently settles with fashion model Harmony Young. Also dropping away is Dr Noah Burstein who no longer has to give Luke support but he returns when his honeymoon is interrupted by an old foe. Then there's the return of Power Man's lawyer Big Ben Donovan, but now trying to steal drugs for himself. Another Power Man ally to reappear is Thunderbolt, only to die from accelerated growth. Also dying is Tony, the projectionist at the cinema. This is a much darker world than that inhabited by the average Marvel series from this time.

The enemies are drawn from a mix of each characters' solo titles, other Marvel universe books and some new creations. Old Power Man foes who reappear include Stiletto and Discus, plus some new incarnations of foes such as Senor Suerte. Coming from Iron Fist's side are Princess Azir, caught up in intrigues related to her home country of Halwan, Sabretooth, now allied with the Constrictor from the Incredible Hulk and many other titles, the Golden Tigers under the leadership of a new Chaka, and then a variety of longstanding foes in the return to K'un-Lun storyline. And the two jointly contribute Bushmaster, who seeks a cure for his condition only to turn to metal and crumble away in a chilling sequence. Meanwhile from other titles we see Boss Morgan, Nightshade, the mobster Bull, all from Captain America and the Falcon or the earlier Tales of Suspense stories, the Living Monolith from the pages of X-Men, complete with much of the team as well, or Maggia boss Caesar Cicero and his henchman Man Mountain Marko, both from Amazing Spider-Man. New foes include the Incinerator, a bank robber in a flame suit, Senor Suerte, the vengeance seeking younger brother of Power Man's old foe, El Aguila, a vigilante who later allies with the Heroes for Hire, Colonel Eschat, a mercenary wiping out his old colleagues, Supremo, a would be military dictator of a Latin American country who actually hires the heroes to locate the existing regime's money supply via the drugs trade, and Montenegro, a mountain climbing crime boss pursuing a piece of technology hidden on a coin.

The final couple of issues feature probably the most obvious Iron Fist storyline not yet done - a return to the lost civilisation of K'un-Lun with a number of old foes returning. Rather than waiting ten years in real time, he and Power Man get there when transported in battle with the wizard Master Khan, who is also the deity of K'un-Lun. In the mystical city Iron Fist discovers and relearns a number of key points about his life and family, clarifying for certainty that his father was originally from outside the city but found his way there, and that Miranda was his half-sister. In conflict with variously the plant race the H'ylthri, the mysterious Ninja, Iron Fist's uncle Nu-An and Master Khan, Iron Fist proves himself worthy of his legacy, and Power Man as a worthy ally. But it also leads to Iron Fist standing up to all the strange customs and practices of K'un-Lun and taking the opportunity to return to the outside world. It's a journey of self-discovery that reinforces the character and the partnership, boding well for the future.

On paper this is a series that shouldn't work. Taking two heroes who had been created to jump on the bandwagon of passing fads and sticking them together should have resulted in a mess that either got demerged or cancelled within a handful of issues. But instead something happens to make it work. The two characters with their very different resources and background prove to be a highly effective odd couple, with the partnership being one of true equals and both heroes getting their fair share of focus. The differences between the two make for some fun asides and occasional disagreements but don't prove insurmountable and so the pairing is fully dynamic, helped by a gradual build-up before the two formalise their partnership. Add in a strong supporting cast that makes use of the best of both books and the series is rapidly firing on all pistons. But what's also a surprise is just how gritty and dark the series is, with some quite brutal deaths and dark psychological moments. It is a much more gritty and down to earth series than many of its contemporaries and a surprisingly strong read even today.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...