Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

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

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

Friday, 19 December 2014

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3 - creator labels

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

Friday, 5 December 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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