Friday, 31 January 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 2

Essential Doctor Strange volume 2 charts the rise and fall of the character's first attempt at an own title and then his attempts at a comeback. It contains Doctor Strange #169-178 & #180-183 (#179 was a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man annual #2; the cover isn't included here) plus the crossover issues Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126. Doctor Strange had a brief back-up strip in Marvel Feature #1 that's included here as part of the return of the character for the Defenders' launch. Then a couple of years later he got a solo strip once again which was run in another tryout book, Marvel Premiere #3-14. Everything before Marvel Premiere, including all the crossover issues, is written by Roy Thomas and then Marvel Premiere is by, variously, Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Gardner Fox and Steve Englehart. Art is more mixed - the Doctor Strange issues are mainly drawn by Gene Colan, with contributions by Dan Adkins and Tom Palmer. The Marvel Feature story is drawn by Don Heck then Marvel Premiere has a variety of artists such as Barry Windsor-Smith, Irv Wesley, Frank Brunner, P. Craig Russell and Jim Starlin. Of the crossover issues the Avengers is by John Buscema, Sub-Mariner by Marie Severin and Incredible Hulk by Herb Trimpe. That's a lot of labels so inevitably a separate post has been created for some of them.

In the early days of the strip it was notable for doing things rather differently from the standard Marvel approach at the time. However after Steve Ditko's departure the series meandered without a clear sense of direction. This volume starts at the point where Doctor Strange got his own title, but this was clearly a consequence of Marvel expanding en masse thanks to a change in its distribution arrangements (a change that I've noted in more detail in previous reviews) rather than a specific decision to break out the character. The series only lasted fifteen issues (carrying forward the Strange Tales numbering, although a later revival of that title would confuse things by doing the same), with the last three seeing the series go bimonthly, always a sign of problems, and demonstrates the same lack of certainty about what to do with the character, with a drift towards several of the conventions of more traditional superhero titles such that we get variously a masked hero, a secret identity and even a step towards a romantic triangle with one woman pining for the hero but realising he only has eyes for another. Just to add to the mess, some of these developments come out of the blue and offer little. The series is also beset by retreading a lot of familiar ground.

The first issue is devoted to a retelling of Doctor Strange's origin before we get a succession of issues focusing mainly on the return of past foes with some familiar settings. Amongst the returns are Nightmare, Dreamstalker, Dormammu, Umar and Tiboro. A guest appearance by the Black Knight against the Sons of Satannish and Tiboro leads to an epilogue in the pages of Avengers as Doctor Strange works with Earth's Mightiest Heroes to tackle Ymir the frost giant and Surtur the fire demon, both from the pages of Thor. Meanwhile, in his second appearance in this brief run, Nightmare becomes the latest entity to challenge Eternity, with the Juggernaut thrown into the mix. The resolution includes the deus ex machina revelation that Eternity has slightly altered the universe to give Doctor Strange a secret identity as "Stephen Sanders", with all records and memories now reflecting this.

There are a few additions to the mythology in these issues, with the most significant debut being the entity Satannish. Other issues feature followers such as Lord Nekron and the Sons of Satannish, Asmodeus and Marduk. Satannish is another of many demonic beings in Marvel comics who appear to be the Devil in some form (and who go many years without clarity as to what the relationship between them is); his debut actually just slightly predates Mephisto's by a month. The last issue starts a storyline with new foes the Undying Ones, ruled by the Nameless One; however the series came to an abrupt halt and so the story was wrapped up first in Sub-Mariner and then in the Incredible Hulk with additional conflict with the Night-Crawler, the ruler of the neighbouring Dark Dimension. At the end of the Incredible Hulk issue, Doctor Strange decides to retire, abandoning his role and powers, and would not be seen again for a year and a half. However he would then reappear, without his mask or "Stephen Sanders" secret identity, when the Defenders launched in the pages of Marvel Feature and a back-up solo story restores his power and position, with yet another clash with Baron Mordo.

These issues also develop Doctor Strange's romantic life by bringing Clea to Earth and making more use of Victoria Bentley. Victoria has strong feelings for Stephen but is saddened to discover he has eyes only for Clea; however unlike some Marvel heroes he's not a dick who acts nasty in order to scare Victoria off. She may be disappointed but is perfectly willing to help him rescue Clea from another realm when she is the only one who can do so, a more sophisticated solution to the situation than some approaches that might have instead had Victoria jealously refusing and forcing Doctor Strange to find an alternative solution. Clea is brought to Earth where she's given her own apartment (showing an unmarried couple living together might have been too bold a step that Marvel didn't want to take in 1968) and there's some comedic asides as she comes to terms with the strange world around her and Stephen has to react quickly to handle the mess when she tries to use her magic. But aside from the culture clash there's a clear rapport between the two. However she gets largely forgotten when the series suddenly ends with no mention of her as Stephen ditches his role and powers, though once the Marvel Premiere strip gets going she appears as though nothing significant has happened in the interim.

With only fifteen issues, one of which is taken up by the retelling of the origin and another by a reprint, there's not too much time for the solo series. However it seems to squander even what is available, in part because many issues have oversized panels that allows the artwork to show off but which also slows down the narrative. Since the series is also going over a lot of old ground the overall result is rather disappointing and it's hard to get upset about it coming to an end so soon. It just reiterates the standard problem that it's often hard to know what to do with Doctor Strange and so a rest and then restricting his appearances to a team title was probably a good prescription. When he once again got an ongoing solo feature there was both an influx of new ideas and a wider changed environment at Marvel.

Initially it seems the new strip might be yet more of the same, with the first issue containing yet another confrontation with Nightmare. But then under the pen of first Gardner Fox and then Steve Englehart the series gets much more original with a strong sequence of stories that see Doctor Strange face off against a host of monsters and demons, putting him in difficult and novel situations. A trip to the town of Starkesboro reveals the population have been transformed into reptilian humanoids, worshipping the snake demon Sligguth, with its priestess Ebora and the Spawn of Sligguth upping the ante. The defeat of Sligguth only leads to the emergence of another monster, N'Gabthoth the Shambler from the Sea. Meanwhile the Shadowmen of Kaa-U kidnap the Ancient One as part of their worship of Shuma Gorath. Doctor Strange's search brings him into conflict with the demon Dagoth and then the living planet Kathulos. The defeat of the latter sees Doctor Strange stuck on a dead planet though he eventually finds a way to fly home, taking four days. When he finally reaches Kaa-U, he fights the Shadowmen's leader the Living Buddha, before the ultimate confrontation with Shuma Gorath. In the process Doctor Strange finds himself facing the ultimate dilemma when the only way to defeat Shuma Gorath is to kill the Ancient One - something that goes against all his medical and mystical oaths and his mentor to boot. Some of the monsters and concepts encountered in this saga are drawn from the works of Robert E. Howard, best known as the creator of Conan.

Gardner Fox is so heavily associated with his herculanen output for DC over the decades that it's always a surprise to discover his name on a Marvel comic. Fox's Marvel work was amongst the last of his comics career (although he also wrote many novels) and to both his and editorial's credit he didn't try to recreate his superhero magic at his new company but rather showed his diversity and worked mainly on westerns and horror. The 1970s horror trend may well have been to Doctor Strange's advantage, allowing a greater use of the occult than before and tapping into a prevailing trend in the market. Fox's run may be brief but it really shakes up the character and series, showing that there is so much more to do and exciting us, helped by a succession of strong artists who defy the usual rule that a different artist each issue invariably means fast, poor results. Fox and the rotation are succeeded by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner who conclude the Shuma Gorath saga and then present a daring saga that confounds expectations and amazes me that they got away with it.

After an emergency reprint (with a new framing sequence) of Doctor Strange's origin, we see the now Sorcerer Supreme seek to end his long-standing rivalry with Baron Mordo, which at first had me worried that we would get yet another retread of all ground, with a battle with the Living Gargoyle en route. But instead both Strange and Mordo get caught in the scheme of the time-travelling sorcerer Cagliostro, real name Sise-Neg, who travels backwards in time absorbing ever more power with the intention of reaching the start of time and influencing creation. He is even open about wishing to become "God" and as the three head backwards through the ages Sise-Neg is responsible for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (here shown as a place of general hostility to all strangers rather than a place practising sodomy), and then, in an earlier period, he creates a garden for two surviving apes. Finally at the start of time Sise-Neg concludes that man cannot be improved upon and so allows things to be created as before. It now seems incredible that a story could see print that effectively portrays its antagonist as the inspiration behind the understanding of God, and gives alternative explanations to some of the best known Biblical stories. Marvel in the mid 1970s was often daring, and highly inconsistent, on religious themes and I doubt they would be able to make such bold moves today.

This volume ends immediately before Doctor Strange was once again transferred to his own title and so comparisons with his first volume naturally arise. Both experience the problems of the Essential format automatically bundling together everything in sequence with the result that two distinct periods are presented in a single volume. And they both show the lengthy search to find a direction and purpose for the character after the initial burst of creation. Here we get the rather dire first solo series which just presents more of the same with greater space for the artwork and it drags. But the cancellation proves to have been beneficial as when the character got a solo strip once more there was now a new approach to magic and horror that allowed for some original and highly magical adventures. The strip once more regains a sense of daring and excitement, and so by the end of the volume things have come almost full circle.

Essential Doctor Strange volume 2 - 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, 24 January 2014

Essential Dazzler volume 2

Essential Dazzler volume 2 contains issues #22-42 of the character's solo series plus the four issue mini-series Beauty and the Beast, Marvel Graphic Novel #12 entitled "Dazzler: The Movie", and Secret Wars II #4. Writing wise the volume covers the end of Danny Fingeroth's run on the series and the concluding run by Archie Goodwin. In between is a turbulent period with issues written by Steven Grant, Frank Springer, Jim Shooter, Ken McDonald, Mike Carlin, Linda Grant and Bob DeNatale. Most of the issues are drawn by Frank Springer and the last ones by Paul Chadwick; other artists include Mark Bright, Geof Isherwood and Tom Morgan. Shooter writes both the graphic novel and the Secret Wars II issue, they are drawn by Springer and Al Milgrom respectively. Finally Beauty and the Beast is written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by Don Perlin. Given the page lengths of some of these the result is the single largest Essential volume to date. So it's no surprise that some of the labels are in a separate post.

This volume comes in a period when the concept of a family of X-Men titles was starting to come together, and would climax at the end of 1985 with the introduction of X-Factor. In the process Dazzler gets ever more drawn into the core themes of the mutant titles as prejudices grow. Appropriately for this shift the very last panel sees the Beast raising his new team with her, though instead a resurrected Marvel Girl would take the place. Was Dazzler axed to free up the character with the intention of using her in X-Factor? It's hard to say though as the last few issues contain all the signs of a series in desperate straits and making a last ditch attempt to turn sales around - the series had been bimonthly for a while, and now it had a new creative team, a new costume and a new logo - then it's doubtful that the series would have lasted much longer anyway.

Sadly this volume shows the series drifting, with changing creative teams changing the premise as they go. In the process Alison Blaire/Dazzler gets moved from New York to the West Coast for not particularly convincing reasons, ditching her supporting cast as she goes and never really replacing them. For most of the run the premise of a superpowered being who has no interest in being a superhero but just wants to live an ordinary life is adhered to, but with limited input as Alison drifts through life and romantic interests, with the series steadily going off the rails. Her original stage costume disappears after issue #26 (bar a brief reappearance in the Beauty and the Beast limited series) and a replacement doesn't arrive until issue #38. It's true the original costume bore all the hallmarks of the disco era that had long passed by this time, both in the series and in wider society, but it always gave Dazzler a distinctive appearance. I'm glad to see that a cover featuring it (#26) was used for the front cover of the volume, as the new costume introduced in issue #38 has dated even more and is extremely generic.

From issue #27 to #35 each issue was graced with a highly stylised painted cover by Bill Sienkiewicz. Painted and photographic covers can look amazing but they are also extremely vulnerable to publication flaws. Unfortunately the black and white reproduction is exceptionally harsh on them, turning many into very dark pages that remove the attraction of them. Worst of all is the cover of the graphic novel, though at least it hides some of the 1984 hairstyles. Is it me or was the fashion of 1984 the ultimate in bad taste?

One area where the series does improve a lot on the issues in the first volume is in having a much lesser reliance on the wider Marvel universe, with many more issues focusing upon characters original to the series. But that's not to say there aren't some appearances and at first we still have the Angel flying about in the early issues, then when in danger Alison engages the Heroes for Hire, Power Man and Iron Fist, then later she's recruited by the Inhumans and encounters practically the entire Royal Family. In the last few issues she trains with the X-Men, then has the Beast come to save her at the end. Then there's the villains such as the slightly renamed Sisterhood of Evil Mutants, consisting of Mystique, Rogue and Destiny, mutant hunters sent by regular government arsehole Henry Peter Gyrich, the duo of Moonstone and Blackout and finally Tatterdemalion. And there's even a surprise appearance by none other than Millie the Model, complete with her rival Chili Storm. Millie now runs a modelling agency that Alison signs for, only to discover sinister goings on with the finger seemingly pointing at Chili. The Marvel universe also intrudes with two wider events, one a mega crossover, the other a theme month.

Issue #30 fell in Assistant Editor's Month, when the Marvel editors went off to the San Diego Comics Convention and left power to go to the heads of their assistants. Here that's more literal than most as Alison briefly flees Los Angeles and accepts a lift to the convention with none other than editor Ralph Macchio, unaware a military group are tracking her and the second-in-command is determined to sort the problem out during his brief period in charge. Meanwhile in New York power has also gone to the head of the assistant editor, a young Bob Harras as he gets ever more dictatorial, demanding all manner of bizarre changes on his titles... until Ralph phones in and suddenly the power drains away. All these years later and Harras has since  been Editor-in-Chief at both Marvel and now DC, so I wonder how he and other creators now feel about this portrayal. Amidst all this the main story of Alison fighting a soldier who is mutated into a dinosaur man due to a military device is almost an afterthought.

The other wider Marvel event the series ties into is Secret Wars II. Issue #4 is included here and it sees the Beyonder trying to understand the concept of "love", picking on Alison to woe. Eventually she seemingly succumbs and he empowers her to be his equal but then he realises his mistake and releases her form his mind control. He then returns her to her previous situation in issue #40 but gets briefly tied up in a battle in her own series. This particular Secret Wars II crossover is frankly a distraction from the regular series, neither offering a special character piece that shows the series's star in an enhanced light nor a one-off adventure that can be easily brushed aside but instead just adds a needless element to the series's final storyline. All in all it demonstrates the tick-box approach to crossovers that seek to take in every series no matter how awkward this is.

In the meantime the series introduces some more original characters but with one exception it doesn't really develop them. Early on Alison befriends Lois London, her half-sister who turns out to be another mutant. Lois is horrified when she discovers she has the power to generate energy in moments of stress, and believes she's killed a man. This causes her to flee, with Alison leaving New York to help her, but even after Lois is cleared, Alison doesn't return home. In Los Angeles Alison befriends Janet McEntee, one of her aerobics students but not much comes of this. Then at the end she is captured and then aided by O.Z. Chase, a grizzled bounty hunter, and his fierce dog Cerberus, who has a strong appetite for beer and cigars. Chase and Cerberus make for a slightly comical pair as they drive across the country in pursuit, with Chase often declaring how much he hates the dog yet he can never get rid of him.

There are also a number of new foes include Flame, an arsonist for hire and Revenge Inc, a group of mercenaries who carry out elaborate retributions for clients. There's also less superpowered ones with Alison having to handle a deranged obsessive stalker, soldiers sent to tackle the mutant "threat", and the Racine Ramjets, a nasty all-female gang. Finally in an extended story at the end of the series, Dazzler is pursued by Dust and Silence, two individuals who survived horrific drug experiments that have left them trying to survive by bizarre means, and the hordes of offspring of others subject to the drugs, arranged as the "New Wave" including Deathgrip, the Outriders, a trio a powered motorcyclists, Jared and Chunk. And then there's a succession of Hollywood sleazeballs in the graphic novel.

I've written about my dislike of graphic novels in previous posts (namely Essential Killraven volume 1 and Power Pack Classic volume 2) so I'll refrain from going through my general criticisms of the format yet again. However here we see some specific problems caused by using them to feature major events in the life of a character with an ongoing series. As well as all the accessibility problems, any delay on such a graphic novel forces a series either to have a jump in the narrative or else to tread water for up to months on end. The latter seems to have been the strategy adopted here, with the result that Alison has been in Hollywood and around Roman Nekoboh for a while, making some of her naivety hard to swallow whilst his pursuit of her seems even less natural.

"Dazzler: The Movie" frankly isn't worth the build-up or any contemporary extended wait. Whilst the art looks good even when muddied by the reproduction that turns the unremovable colour into an excess of grey, the story is very pedestrian, focusing upon the sleazy side of Hollywood and the way Alison lets it consume her. Men try to indirectly buy their way into bed with her, and she eventually succumbs to the advances of Roman Nekoboh after he showers her with attention and gifts, fakes an affair for the media to get her to play along, chases her, commits sexual harassment if not sexual assault and fakes a heart attack to make her care for him. Nekoboh (the name is Hoboken backwards - Frank Sinatra's birthplace - and the forename is the clincher) is an aged once-great movie star who doesn't realise that he's in the has-been phase of his career. Bald, overweight and short-sighted, he wears a wig, corset, contacts and false teeth to present a younger, slimmer image to the world, a sign of the fakeness of the environment Alison has stepped into. Her submission is a sign of the poor way she's handled here. Moving beyond her singing career she tries her hand at acting - a combined career that's surprisingly common in the industries - and winds up making a movie with Nekoboh. But her naivety persists and she finds herself taking part in a stunt to reveal her to the world as a mutant, in the hope of boosting the movie's profile and overcoming prejudice by showing the capacity for mutants to do good, but it backfires spectacularly when her powers overload, causing fear and hatred. It's possible to see foreshadows of more recent storylines that focus on how the world reacts to having potentially dangerous superpowered beings in their midst, as well as a parallel to the real life problems many LGBT celebrities have faced when they've come out or been forced out. But the graphic novel is let down by the poor treatment of the central character, showing her as a fool who succumbs to the sleazy side of Hollywood, to the point where she takes a look in the mirror and sees herself as an ever fattening smoker, realising what's she's become and hating it. (It also misses a trick by not exploring the obvious comparison with her mother's life.) Eventually she discovers how she's been manipulated all along by a man whose advances she rejected when working at a gym club and then quit her job when he purchased the club to try to have her. What we're left with is some good ideas but badly executed with a fall out on the main series, both by forcing it to tread water to line up with the graphic novel but also by shifting the character away from her roots and pushing her into a marginalised existence as she tries to survive despite infamy and prejudice, making the series into something very different from before. And Alison doesn't learn all her lessons with the Secret Wars II issue, also written by Jim Shooter, showing her once again quickly succumbing to the advances of a man who abuses his power to shower her with gifts and fakes being in danger to get her to care for him.

As well as the graphic novel, the end of 1984 also saw the launch of a limited series. Beauty and the Beast is an odd little series that appears to have been named first and only then had the contents devised. It sees Alison and the Beast (Hank McCoy) drawn into a theatre comprised completely of mutants, a hotel for other mutants to hide at, and a struggle between Doctor Doom and his alleged illegitimate son. (Doom's presence in the story was a major continuity mess as it came in an extended period when the original Doom had been killed off, bar his explained appearance in Secret Wars.) Hank is drawn to pursue Alison for no particular reason though the two find themselves falling for each other, seemingly just to meet the demands of the story. All in all this is a convoluted mess that distorts characters and continuity in order to tell a rather turgid and forgettable story.

Looking at the main series the same thing happens with the biggest problem being the abrupt shift away from New York. Initially this appears to be only temporarily as Alison helps Lois run away, since Alison has a highly successful album out. But she soon settles on the West Coast and drifts into a succession of other jobs whilst waiting for her career to take off again. The graphic novel and limited series then forcibly drag the regular series into the realm of anti-mutant prejudice but it feels off. Finally the last issues see a new creative team effectively abandon the singing and move Dazzler ever more towards being a conventional superhero, with an extended struggle against powerful foes during which her father is killed. It's all rather jarring and the result is a meandering before a final crash. The last issue also sees her death faked with the result that she believes she can have freedom from prejudice and the ability to continue her singing career - but it's never easy to climb back into the closet so just how is she going to sing in public without being recognised? It seems more likely she is going to be a regular superhero, though not on the initially planned team.

And so a once promising series crashes upon the rock of creative and editorial incompetence. Given the graphic novel was written by the-then Editor-in-Chief, it's easy to guess where the forced new direction came from. Sadly it left the character and series wrecked and attempts to either salvage the mess or move beyond it just didn't come off. The cover of the final issue declares "Because you demanded it! The last issue of the Dazzler". Despite the length of the volume I wasn't screaming for it to end, but the sad state of the series makes it hard to mourn too much. It's a pity because the series had launched so well, offering something different from the norm and giving us that extreme rarity, a female lead who existed for more than just intellectual property protection.

Essential Dazzler volume 2 - creator labels

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

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

More Marvel Omnibuses

It's been six months since my brief look at the Marvel Omnibus editions. Since then some more have been published and others are forthcoming so here's a quick rundown of the latest ones to contain Spider-Man issues.

Spider-Man title specific Omnibuses

Spider-Man by Roger Stern

Contains: Spectacular Spider-Man #43-61 & #85, Amazing Spider-Man #206, #224-252 & Annual #16-17 and material from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3, Web of Spider-Man Annual #3 and What If...? #34

One of the most eventful periods in Spider-Man's life with one of the most popular writers, this volume brings together Roger Stern's runs from both Spectacular Spider-Man (collected in Essential Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2 and volume 3) and Amazing Spider-Man (most collected in Essential Spider-Man volume 10 and volume 11) plus a few other bits and pieces (also found in Essential Spider-Man volume 9, Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2 and What If...? Classic volume 6).


Infinity Gauntlet

(The cover is yet to come so in the meantime here's the cover from the issue this post is most interested in.)

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Spider-Man #17

Also contains: Silver Surfer (volume 3) #34-38, #40 & #44-60, Thanos Quest #1-2, Infinity Gauntlet #1-6, Cloak & Dagger #18, Incredible Hulk #383-385, Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #31-36, Quasar #26-27 and Sleepwalker #7

Infinity Gauntlet was a major crossover from the summer of 1991 (right at the time I first discovered original US comics rather their reprints), building upon events in the Silver Surfer's series and taking in many others. The "Adjectiveless" Spider-Man series was caught up in the main action.

Guest appearances in the Spider-Man titles

Deadpool by Joe Kelly

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Amazing Spider-Man #47 & #611

Also contains: Deadpool #1-33, #-1 & #0, Daredevil/Deadpool Annual 1997, Deadpool/Death Annual 1998, Baby's First Deadpool Book, and material from Deadpool #900

Deadpool was the surprise breakout star character of the 1990s. His first ongoing solo series caught the South Park wave of comically violent satire and sent up many of the existing superhero conventions. One of the best remembered issues was #11, in which Deadpool time travelled and wound up in the events of Amazing Spider-Man #47 with hilarious consequences; the original issue was also reprinted. Joe Kelly later had a stint on Amazing Spider-Man as one of several rotating writers; in one issue he guest starred the Merc with a Mouth.

Iron Man by Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen

Contains (Spider-Man issues): Peter Parker, Spider-Man (volume 2) #11

Also contains: Iron Man (volume 3) #1-25, Captain America (volume 3) #8, Quicksilver #10, Avengers (volume 3) #7, Iron Man/Captain America Annual 1998, Fantastic Four (volume 3) #15, Iron Man Annual 1999, Thor (volume 2) #17, Juggernaut: The Eighth Day and Iron Man: The Iron Age #1-2

This collects the early part of Iron Man's 1997 relaunch as part of Heroes Return. It includes the crossover "The Eighth Day" which also ran in Peter Parker, Spider-Man and Thor, both of which had also recently had their numbering reset.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Essential Classic X-Men volume 3

Essential Classic X-Men volume 3 represents the end of the X-Men's original run plus some of the material from their hidden years. It reprints X-Men #54-66 and then the Beast's solo strip from Amazing Adventures #11-16 plus the framing sequence that topped & tailed a reprint in issue #17 (as the new feature War of the Worlds - featuring Killraven - wasn't ready in time). In addition there are appearances by some or all of the X-Men from Amazing Spider-Man #92, Incredible Hulk #150 & #161 and Marvel Team-Up #4. Finally as bonus material there's a cover gallery showing X-Men #67-93 & annuals #1-2, the unused cover for issue #56 and some unused interior art from issue #64. All but one of the X-Men issues are written by Roy Thomas; the exception is by Arnold Drake and one back-up is by Linda Fite. Werner Roth draws the back-ups whilst the lead and then full issues are mainly by Neal Adams with a few by Don Heck and the last by Sal Buscema. The Amazing Adventures issues are written by Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart and drawn by Tom Sutton, Marie Severin and Jim Starlin. The Amazing Spider-Man issue is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gil Kane, the Incredible Hulk issues are written by Archie Goodwin and Englehart and both drawn by Herb Trimpe, and the Marvel Team-Up is written by Conway and drawn by Kane. As that's such a large number of series and creators, a separate post has been created for some of them.

The first half of the volume contains perhaps the X-Men's most desperate hour. Sales on the series were slipping and unless something amazing was done quickly the book would be cancelled. And at first it seems that something amazing did happen. Roy Thomas returned to write the series and he was joined by Neal Adams. Looking at Mike's Amazing World of Comics: Database: Neal Adams I was surprised to see just how few comics he's actually drawn in his career, and also how early his X-Men work came - it was his first Marvel work and came before some of his most famous DC work on Batman, Detective Comics and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Indeed issue #65 is almost the first time Adams worked with Denny O'Neil before the two would go on to have a huge influence not just on Batman and Green Lantern but also on the direction US superhero comics as a whole would take in the 1970s. Adams's work impresses heavily despite his all too brief run and it's clear that one half of the title is now firing on all cylinders. So too is the other half.

After a rather turgid stretch covered by the second volume there's a distinct upswing here that begins even on Arnold Drake's last issue but then steps up several gears as Roy Thomas returns. The origins stories and detailed powers back-up features are maintained just long enough to complete the set by telling the tale of the Angel and showcasing Marvel Girl's powers (her own origin and recruitment to the team was covered sufficiently at the start of the series) and then the main stories go full-length. There's a mixture of returns of some of the stronger past foes, but each in a new and deadlier form, alongside the introduction of new enemies and allies. Almost until the end of this run the series is better than it has ever been.

There's a succession of new characters that help to enhance the series. By far the most significant is Cyclops's younger brother Alex Summers who soon adopts the identity of Havok. Although both he and Lorna Dane are sparingly used in these issues, it's good to see an expansion of the line-up with characters who have ties to the existing team at a time when the school is not in operation and so new members can't be recruited that way. Whilst it would have been nice to see both used more in the limited time available, although there are some tensions as Havok steadily becomes a rival to Iceman for Lorna's affections, both need time to both develop their control of their powers and decide whether or not to become adventurers, and this is eventually addressed in Incredible Hulk #150. Less successful though is the reintroduction of Professor X, with the revelation that it was in fact a terminally ill Changeling in disguise who previously died, and Xavier has been hiding in a basement preparing to deal with an alien invasion. Although the actual preparation is convincing, the need to have faked his death just doesn't convince. It's also unfortunate that his return is in one of the weakest issues in the volume. A dramatic adventure was needed to justify his return but this one is far too rushed and involves a never seen before foe of the type not normally dealt with by the X-Men. It's as though the ending of the series was known about and there was a rush to get Professor X back in case of a revival or guest appearances. However other things suggest against this foreknowledge.

In the meantime there's a very strong line-up of villains, both old and new. The Sentinels return for their strongest challenge yet, this time guided by Larry Trask, son of the robots' creator who blames mutants for his father's death without realising he himself is a mutant. The Sentinels seem impossible to stop until Cyclops defeats them with logic and makes them all fly to the source of mutation - the Sun. Meanwhile in the Savage Land there is the mysterious "Creator" who has seemingly helped other mutants but in fact has genetically engineered them. In a twist the end of issue #62 reveals that the creator is an unmasked Magneto. It's a nice trick that takes advantage of the fact that the master of magnetism has never been seen without his helmet before and was never a mystery identity villain, whilst his scheme shows new deviousness as he no longer surrounds himself with buffoons and uneasy followers but instead creates a new set of deadly foes. On the new front there's the Living Pharaoh, who is transformed into the gigantic and fearsome Living Monolith, and Sauron, a man cursed to drain energy from others that transforms him into a pterodactyl man. The alien invasion is by the Z'Nox, merciless giant reptiles from another galaxy. Then there's Sunfire, a young Japanese mutant with the power to generate solar energy who represents the conflict within Japan over the country's role in the post war world, with Sunfire's father a diplomat promoting stronger links with the United States and his uncle encouraging vengeance.

With each issue flowing into the next there's a real sense of momentum about the series, showing it has found its vitality again and offering the prospect of a long run of greatness. But sadly it wasn't successful and with issue #66 the series came to a close. The last three issues show some scrambling about with either Thomas or Adams absent each time, suggesting some fill-ins and a rush to wrap things up. The return of Professor X and the Z'Nox invasion in issue #65 is underwhelming and then issue #66 is a search for the Hulk, with his military pursuers thrown in as well, that just doesn't do justice as a final issue. The final panel shows the seven X-Men standing around Professor X's bed as he recovers and reminds us there are still wrongs to right and foes to fight, with the X-Men confirming they will carry on saving the world and a final caption "And they fought happily ever after...??" Whilst the last few issues themselves may not have been the greatest, this was a premature cancellation.

Given how long it took to assemble accurate sales figures, I suspect the decision was taken before the full impact of the Thomas/Adams run became available. For somebody seems to have realised that X-Men still had sales potential and within less than a year the series returned as a bimonthly reprint title. There were also two "King-Sized" specials; annuals by any other name. As the first eight issues had already been reprinted elsewhere the revived series reprinted from issue #9 onwards, almost in exact order bar some rearrangement to put two-part tales in the same issue in both the annuals and in ongoing issues in the brief period when regular Marvel series increased in size. All the covers from the reprint era are included here and although many of them reuse previous cover images it's nice to see them for completism's sake. It's interesting to see that the reprints came to an end with issue #93 reprinting #45, despite that being a mid-part of a crossover with the Avengers. I wonder if there was a reprint of Avengers #53 somewhere in 1975; otherwise readers would have to wait until 1992 when it appeared in Avengers #350.

1975 would prove a big year for the X-Men and issue #94 would go its own way. But that is all for another day. In the meantime the X-Men spent some five years confined to the guest appearance circuit and we get a few of those appearances here. It's telling that once Marvel Team-Up switched from its initial plan of a buddy book for Spider-Man and the Human Torch to become Spider-Man's and Marvel's answer to The Brave and the Bold, the X-Men were the first guest-stars to appear. There may be a slight lapse of visual continuity as they wear their original costumes (before switching to civilian gear) but otherwise it's a good story that manages to juggle all the heroes in such a way to show them well and prove there's life in the team yet. The first of the two Incredible Hulk issues reprinted here helps fill in some gaps by showing developments with Lorna and Havok and how the triangle with Iceman has been resolved for now. The issue of Amazing Spider-Man included here seems rather redundant though. Whilst Spider-Man and Iceman would go on to co-star in the cartoon Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends a decade later, here we get the second part of a Spider-Man story as he's pursued by an unscrupulous candidate for District Attorney, with Iceman getting caught up in it. This isn't the most essential of inclusions.

The main feature of the latter part of this volume is the Beast's solo series from Amazing Adventures. It's clear from reading this here that the series was truncated in a hurry after just six issues, with a number of plot threads left outstanding and not all of them were resolved in the second Incredible Hulk issue included here. Additionally issue #17 was an emergency reprint fill-in issue retelling the Beast's origin with a couple of new pages to frame it. A text caption at the top of the reprint explains this was because the new feature (War of the Worlds featuring Killraven) wasn't ready in time, suggesting it was quickly selected to replace the Beast.

The series itself sees the Beast leave the X-Men to go and work for the Brand Corporation. There his experiments and attempts to hide his identity backfire and he winds up being mutated into a furry and seemingly less intelligent form. Initially grey, by the end his colour is changing to "black" but it seems to be the more familiar blue. In the process Hank gets caught up in plots by the shadowy Secret Empire (the new Number One's identity is not revealed here but it would turn out to be one of the most potentially libellous things Marvel has ever published) and falls for Linda Donaldson, assistant at the Band Corporation but actually Number Nine. Throw in conflict with variously a new version of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, here consisting of Mastermind, the Blob and Unus the Untouchable, Iron Man, Quasimodo and the Angel, and Hank's struggle with the physical and mental changes and the series rattles along but never quite takes off. There's even an appearance by Patsy Walker, now married to Buzz Baxter, though her maiden name isn't used here to identify the character. Truly the Marvel universe takes in everything. This is stretched further in the last full issue as Hank and former girlfriend Vera Cantor find themselves battling the Juggernaut around some of the Marvel bullpen - Roy Thomas, Jean Thomas, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway and Len & Glynis Wein - at the Rutland Halloween Parade in Vermont, in a story that is also a discrete crossover with Thor and the Justice League of America. However the strip comes to a premature conclusion with the developments around the Secret Empire left to another series and the story of Vera's search for Hank's help is wrapped up in Incredible Hulk #161 as they encounter the Hulk and the Mimic in the Canadian wilderness. All in all the strip is functional but doesn't really leap out and make one wish for an ongoing Beast series. Still it's good to see it hasn't been forgotten by the Essentials.

The last part of this volume may be bitty as it presents some of the key X-Men stories from their hidden years, but it's completely appropriate for most of them to be here. But it's the main run that is the volume's greatest feature. At a time when the series was floundering it needed to do something amazing and it certainly achieved that. Clearly it was short-sightedness that led to the series being cancelled despite this revival and what we're left with is probably the best run on the X-Men from before the All-New All-Different era. It was a tragedy to end it so soon and that impacts on the very last few issues but overall the series went out on a high.

Essential Classic X-Men 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, 10 January 2014

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2 contains issues #21-40 and Annual #2, plus, as a bonus in the earliest editions, the Human Torch and Spider-Man team-up from Strange Tales Annual #2. Everything is scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, continuing their astoundingly long uninterrupted run.

After the intense creation in the first volume it's unsurprising to find this volume contains a lot of consolidation, with many existing foes returning and the emphasis being placed on different types of encounter rather than new faces. Having said that there are some new foes and menaces, including the Hate-Monger, Diablo, Gregory Gideon, Attuma, the Infant Terrible and Dragon Man, though the last two aren't really menaces in their own right There's a couple of teams of foes assembled as well. Doctor Doom's team appears only once, though the other three members - Bull Brogin, Yogi Dakor and Harry Phillips - would go on to plague the Human Torch and the Thing in Strange Tales. In return the Frightful Four would draw most of its members from the Torch's strip - the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete had both debuted there and the Sandman had also clashed with the Torch though he originated in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. A new villain is introduced as the team's fourth member - Medusa, although she bears limited resemblance to the monster of mythology.

The Hate-Monger was a pretty daring creation for 1963 by designing him with elements of the Ku Klux Klan uniform and then revealing him to be Adolf Hitler. For the era, linking contemporary racism to the Nazis was a bold statement against hatred and bigotry, but from a modern perspective it succumbs to the clichés of Nazis having fled to South America to continue their plans and of Hitler having survived the end of the Second World War. I've often found such tales to be rather crass that almost trivialise one of the most evil men in the history of the real world by reducing him to a stock villain's role, and the suggestion that the Hate-Monger may have actually been one of the Führer's doubles doesn't reduce the impact.

The other new foes are generally fairly forgettable - Gregory Gideon is an early example in comics of the tycoon who uses his wealth and influence to bring down his foes; here he targets the Four purely because he's made a bet with rival businessmen in the hopes of driving them out of business. The Infant Terrible is just an alien child with incredible powers and no sense of control over them, whilst Dragon Man is an artificial being brought to life by Diablo who subsequently rebels. Diablo and Attuma are the most prominent of the additions. The former is a nineteenth century alchemist who found success with chemicals but has been sealed in a castle for a century until he tricks the Thing into releasing him. Attuma is an undersea warlord and leader of a tribe of barbarians; he seems to have been created in part to release the Sub-Mariner from the role of the main undersea villain in the Marvel universe so Namor could be used more as an anti-hero or even a hero.

Coming from a period in which the Marvel universe was steadily growing, there are a number of guest appearances. Nick Fury makes his first present day appearance in issue #21, in return for an appearance by Reed Richards in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #3. Now holding the rank of Colonel and working for the CIA, Fury enlists the aid of the Four in preventing a revolution overthrowing a democracy in a Latin American country and dealing with the Hate-Monger's operations, noting "...we couldn't interfere in another nation's affairs!" That's an interesting take on the CIA's role and actions. There's a return encounter with the Hulk spread over two issues that also brings the Four's first meeting with the Avengers; with the two teams getting in each other's way at times. Oddly the battle is resolved by the Avengers with the Four not doing much in the last few pages, as though somebody forgot whose series it was. Similarly the first meeting with the X-Men sees the Beast break the Puppet Master's hold over Professor X, who in tun brings down the Mad Thinker's Awesome Android. Between these two encounters comes an issue guest starring Doctor Strange but fortunately his role is limited to finding where the Sub-Mariner has taken Sue and transporting Johnny and Ben there. That's four consecutive issues worth of guest stars, an early sign of how the balance could be tipped from an integrated universe to endless plugging of other series. Daredevil also appears in two issues at the end of the volume. Only Spider-Man (plus the western and soap/comedy characters) is left out of the Fantastic Four issues and even he gets a one panel cameo when he swipes a sandwich at Reed and Sue's engagement party, plus a slightly larger alter ego cameo as Peter Parker is on an open day at State University when the Four visit Reed and Ben's old stomping ground. And of course there's the bonus story.

Such a heavy use of guest appearances is a sign that this volume shows a series starting to stumble about a bit, as the novelty and initial burst of creativity wear off, resulting in a somewhat mediocre period full of returning foes, rather weak new ones and lots of guest appearances. There seems to be very little direction or progress until some way into the second half of the volume and instead it all feels rather bitty. There are some attempts to flesh out all four heroes' backgrounds through first an encounter with Sue and Johnny's father and then with a visit to Reed and Ben's old university, but it's rather piecemeal. The one existing character who gets substantial development is Doctor Doom, with the annual carrying a substantial story recounting his youth and origin (oddly despite feeling like a back-up feature it's printed before the main one, a mistake dating back to 1964). However the later issues show signs of development and improvement, starting with Reed and Sue's engagement and a succession of adventures that test whether or not the team will last.

One of the oddest moments comes in the annual when Doctor Doom encounters Rama Tut, the time travelling Pharaoh who believes he is a descendant of Doom. During their encounter the two ponder the possibility that they are somehow the same person at different points in time, with no certainty as to who came first. But there's very little to support such a notion, not even the coincidence of Rama Tut arriving at just the moment to save Doom from suffocating in space. Rather than adding mystery to either character it just creates more confusion, especially given that Rama Tut would go on to become the Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror, and his later encounters with Doom often ignored the issue or even contradicted its implications outright. Nor is there anything suggesting Doom was an amnesiac time traveller in Doom's origin recounted in the same annual. All this shows is how easy it is to get confused when time travel is involved and how what might seem like a cool idea can rapidly turn into incomprehensible nonsense.

There's one idea that was long overdue when it finally arrives in issue #22 and that's an enhancement of the Invisible Girl's powers. Sue retains the ability to turn herself invisible but she can now also turn other things invisible or even generate an invisible forceshield around either herself or others. However at this stage she's only able to utilise one manifestation of the power at a time and her role in battles is still largely defensive. There's also a lot of sexism on display, particularly from Reed who is over protective and dismissive of her usefulness at times. In spite of this the two have strong feelings for each other, even though Reed tries to restrain them out of fear acting on them would turn Sue into a hostage target, but at the end of issue #35 he takes the plunge and proposes. For a superhero series less than four years old to make such a move past the endless "will they/won't they" state of affairs then common to the genre must have been a real shock to readers at the time. Aquaman had only just tied the knot but he was never the highest profile of heroes whereas Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl were Marvel's first couple. The proposal is almost the moment it becomes clear the series is getting back on track.

In the meantime the series has largely meandered through a succession of foes in rather forgettable adventures. Amongst the few really memorable ones from this era are the annual in which Doctor Doom is established as the "monarch" of a tiny European country, Latveria. I'm not sure Lee and Kirby quite understood the use of the term "monarch" at a time when a number of countries were getting dictators-for-life. The position gives Doom diplomatic immunity as a head of state, allowing him to act without fear of arrest though in his second appearance the police and the Four don't show any restraint on those grounds when seeking to retake the Baxter Building. Also of note is the storyline in which Sue and Johnny's father Franklin Storm reappears, having sunk low after the death of his wife in a car accident and then having spent many years in jail after a struggle with a loan shark let off a gun and killed a person. He is impersonated by the Super Skrull who in turn poses as "the Invincible Man" and uses his powers to defeat the Four, leaving them subject to hostile public opinion in the belief they've held back against their own relative. Finally the Skrulls try to use the real Franklin to deliver a bomb to the Four, but he instead takes the blast and sacrifices himself, achieving redemption in death.

The biggest drama comes at the end when the Four are caught in a nuclear test and lose their powers, with Ben reverting from the Thing to human form. This leads to some bizarre attempts to duplicate the powers with technology, ranging from a flame suit for Johnny to a radio-controlled robot for Ben. In the meantime Doctor Doom captures the Baxter Building and the Four, plus Daredevil, have to fight to regain it. The story shows the determination of the team even when they don't have their powers to save them, but has a slight cop-out at the end when Reed grabs a device and uses it to restore everyone's powers, declaring that the only reason he didn't use it before was because it was still recharging. It feels very much a deus ex machina solution to the problem, though it brings drama of its own when Reed feels forced to use it on Ben against his will, forcing him to become the Thing again because his strength is needed. Doctor Doom is defeated in one-on-one physical combat,  but the Thing's anger at being restored to his form causes him to declare he's leaving the team. And there the volume comes to close. Well almost.

The Human Torch/Spider-Man team-up from Strange Tales Annual #2 is included as well. When this volume originally came out this was the first time in many years that the story had been reprinted (hence the appalling quality in the earliest edition, looking like a direct scan of the original published comic, with the colour coming through as a lot of greys) and it made for a nice bonus. Now, however, the full Human Torch strip has been collected elsewhere and so the story's inclusion here feels superfluous, especially as the volume could have instead carried a further issue of Fantastic Four which follows on issue #40's cliffhanger.

Overall the art in this volume is generally suitably fantastic and really conveys both the action and the drama, but there are a handful of pages in various issues that try to use real photographs, some straight singles, some collages of multiple images, in order to show space and individuals and captions are added on top. When used today this technique can deliver wonders but 1960s' printing technology just wasn't up to the task and the result is the photos look awkwardly out of place and pixelated. It's surprising that the technique was tried so often. The individual issues are well written and keep the team as distinct characters. However overall most of this volume feels like it was done on autopilot, with the creativity of the first twenty issues largely transferred to other series, leaving the title to start going through all too familiar motions. Fortunately the last few issues show a real uptick in direction, putting the tension back into things. This is the classic problem the Essentials have with rigidly collecting a series in order - the weaker periods come with the strong and often the dividing points produce individual volumes that are an uneven mixture of the two.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Essential Hulk volume 2

Essential Hulk volume 2 contains the Hulk strips from issues #92-101 of Tales to Astonish which was then transformed into a new Incredible Hulk series and the volume contains issues #102-117 and annual #1. Bonus material includes the back-up story from Incredible Hulk #147. Most of the issues are written by Stan Lee or Gary Friedrich bar one by Bill Everett & Roy Thomas and another by Archie Goodwin & Roy Thomas. The art is mainly by Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe, with Frank Giacoia providing breakdowns on one issue. The back-up from #147 is written by Thomas and drawn by Trimpe.

The first volume showed two attempts at the Hulk that just couldn't find a clear identity and direction for the series, with the result that it meandered aimlessly. And once again, we have a volume that founders due to the extremely limited nature of the central character and the poorly developed cast and environment around him. The Hulk is an oversimplistic monster and alter ego Bruce Banner is much underused with the result that there's not much meat to these tales, just an ongoing saga as the Hulk wanders from situation to situation whilst the military and others employ a variety of different methods in order to try and neutralise the monster. The situation is made worse by an inconsistent approach to the monster's intelligence levels with his dialogue varying from extremely childlike to rather more sophisticated and an uncertainty over how much he hates the human race, with some stories seeing him try to protect humans and others showing him far more hostile. The main development of note is the heavy use of characters from other series, although they are primarily lesser known supporting characters and villains rather than the big name stars.

The use kicks off right from the start of the volume as the first couple of issues see the Hulk encounter the Silver Surfer; the latter making his first ever appearance outside of the pages of the Fantastic Four. Then over the course of subsequent issues he crosses paths with the likes of the High Evolutionary and some of his creations like the New Men and the Knights of Wundagore, Namor the Sub-Mariner (in a crossover between the two strips in Tales to Astonish, taking up an entire issue), the Puppet Master, the Warriors Three, Odin, Loki, the Enchantress, the Executioner and other Asgardians, the Rhino, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., the Mandarin, Ka-Zar, Zabu and the Swamp Men, and the Sandman. The annual also gets in on the act and sees him encounter the Inhumans, getting caught up in an attempted coup by Maximus against Black Bolt with several other Inhumans seen including Gorgon and Lockjaw. Amongst the new foes are the Legion of the Living Lightning, the Space Parasite, the Missing Link, who is an intermediate stage of evolution awakened and mutated by radiation, Umbu, a robot in the Savage Land, the Galaxy Master, and the Leader's Super-Humanoid. The Hulk also gets out his stomping ground at times, with visits to New York, the Soviet Union, China, the Savage Land and the Inhumans' Great Refuge in a mountain range, as well as trips away from Earth to Wundagore II, Asgard or Berhert.

This is quite a diverse range of characters and settings but it can't conceal the basic problem that this particular incarnation of the Hulk isn't terribly interesting and it's difficult to generate excitement in such circumstances. The adventures take a step away from the continuous epic seen in the previous volume and are now more piecemeal, making them easier to pick for one-off reprints and to use the Hulk in other series but at the same time very little is developed. Few of the new foes are particularly memorable and the only significant reuses are the Leader, brought back to life with an "I took precautions and wasn't completely dead" explanation that now opens him up for future tales, and the Rhino, providing another super-strong foe with recurring potential. Otherwise we get a succession of stories that alternate between Bruce Banner/the Hulk being pursued by the army, sometimes captured, until he either escapes or else a bigger menace comes along and only the Hulk can stop it, or else some powerful being wants to make use of the Hulk for his own purposes. It is possible to base a series around the pursuit of a monster when the pursuing characters are compelling, but unfortunately that's not the case here. Rick Jones is used sparingly, eventually determining the Hulk is a menace who must be stopped, before disappearing into other series. General "Thunderbolt" Ross remains a driven cliché whilst Betty Ross continues to spend a lot of time crying for Bruce and wishing he could be cured of the Hulk curse. Major Glenn Talbot is trapped by the dilemma of the Hulk being his main obstacle for Betty's affections but he cannot bring himself to perform the obvious action to remove his rival, knowing that Betty would just hate him for it.

But aside from Betty's feelings in the matter, it's surprising that nobody is prepared to take the obvious step and execute Bruce on an occasion when he's been captured and is still in human form. Yes Bruce may be a top scientist but he's now been deemed enough of a menace that great amounts of force are devoted to stopping him. The absence of any exploration of this point may be attributable to the comic standards of the era, but from a modern perspective it's a surprising omission. However we do get to see that Bruce has done his best to take precautions, leaving notes for a device that (in a cameo) Reed Richards is able to construct and this gadget is used to transform the Hulk back to Banner, seeming permanently - and just at the wrong moment when the Hulk is all that stands in the way of the Missing Link. Fortunately the latter monster is emitting enough radiation that it restores the Hulk.

Although this volume is overall a meandering, directionless series there are some individual stories that do slightly stand out. One sees the Hulk captured on the orders of the High Evolutionary and transported away from Earth in order to fight the renegade New Men on Wundagore II - it seems the High Evolutionary just can't stop trying to create a new utopia and populate it with his creations. In the final battle the Evolutionary is mortally wounded and has no choice but to undergo an experiment in accelerated evolution, becoming an all powerful being who can instantly set all things to right before going on to become one with the cosmos. It's not as obvious as some later uses of the Evolutionary - most obviously in the original Warlock saga - but it does show a surprising willingness to take a mortal man and turn him into almost a god. The ending suggests that the Evolutionary's story has come to its natural conclusion, though it's always possible to bring back a character no matter how permanent their end seems to be. Such is the case with the Leader who is revived in the last few issues in the volume and he proves himself to be highly adaptable and devious, proving able to restrain the Hulk for ages whilst plotting anew. It all makes for a recurring conflict between gamma-enhanced brain and gamma-enhanced brawn. Although there's not exactly much competition for the role, the Leader is clearly earning his position as the Hulk's archenemy and it's one of extremely few signs of the series starting to develop the characters needed to create exciting sustained adventures.

The encounters across the wider Marvel universe also include conflict with two of the Hulk's future comrades in the Defenders. His meeting with the Sub-Mariner is complicated by the Puppet Master controlling the Hulk to force him into a fight but it shows how strongly matched the two are, making for a memorable struggle as their strips collide to celebrate Tales to Astonish's 100th issue. The meeting with the Silver Surfer is more interesting and tragic. Both are outcasts pursued by the hostility of humans yet due to the Hulk's anger and misunderstanding they initially end up fighting. Each wants to leave Earth but the Surfer is trapped and the Hulk proves unable to control the Surfer's surfboard after snatching it. But as the Hulk lies subdued there comes the possibility that the Surfer's powers could cure him once and for all by purging the gamma cells. Unfortunately another misunderstanding causes the Hulk to lash out and drive off the Surfer, denying a chance at a real cure. Whether the Surfer might still be able to cure the Hulk or not is something that only a few later writers have addressed, with one showing it was possible but the location of the action required it to be reversed to save Bruce's life, whilst on another occasion the Surfer discovered that the Hulk had been separated from Bruce and thus there was no Banner to turn him back into. Still it's a nice little encounter that shows the two outcasts have much in common and could work well together if they could overcome their suspicions and misunderstandings.

Sadly misunderstandings seem to be almost everywhere as both the Hulk and those around him frequently jump to conclusions and assume the worst, resulting in a succession of fights and denying the creature a chance to show his peaceful side. The Hulk may have a lot of anger but he also wants to live in peace and tranquillity, with friends who will understand and accept him for what he is. That's a goal many of us can identify with, along with the frustration that comes when such simple aims seem to be permanently denied, but it really isn't sufficient to sustain the series no matter how many guest appearances are thrown into the mix. This can make many Hulk adventures extremely turgid and this volume seems to be packed with more than most.

The main saving grace comes in the artwork, with Marie Severin vividly bringing the series to life but then Herb Trimpe takes it up several gears, producing some highly dynamic work that brings both the characters and the battles to life. However the writing just isn't fancy enough. In a parallel to Amazing Spider-Man, we see Stan Lee leave the series only to return after a handful of issues by other writers. The problem is that the series is drifting both with and without Lee, as though his creative energies were starting to wane after such a huge output for many years. However he'd been on many series for so long that it wasn't always easy to step into his shoes and in the case of both the Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-Man it took two departures to finally find the best ongoing successor. Oddly it was Roy Thomas who would prove to be the ultimate immediate successor on Hulk when his Spider-Man tenure was the brief first attempt. But his main Hulk work is in volumes to come. The final story is a taster of things to come, showing the Hulk encountering a mirage of a town in the desert but his enhanced senses bring it to life and just for a brief moment he seems to have found both a friend and a place in life. It's a nice little tale and although I'm not sure why it was chosen for inclusion here, it shows the Thomas/Trimpe team can produce enjoyable individual stories, giving hope for the future.

In the meantime this is a rather poor overall entry in the series; an example of how the Essentials inevitably wind up collecting rather weak periods on some of the longest running titles and occasionally a series can get cut up in such a way that the overall result is just the weaker period without overlapping onto a better time either side or some one-off spectacular issues. But also it shows the fundamental problems inherent in the basic set-up of the Hulk and either some major character development or some significant changes to the status quo would be needed to overcome these problems. However until then what's left is a rather rambling dull series.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The new year ahead

Happy New Year everyone!

This year I'll be continuing to look at a wide variety of Essential volumes but this time with a little more structure as I go. There'll be a number of months where all the regular reviews will have a unifying theme. It could be a single series, a family of titles, the remaining series whose first volumes haven't yet been covered, an era or so forth. Not every month will have a dedicated focus but several will, especially with certain movies on the horizon. (And just because a particular character or group may not have an available Essential of their own doesn't mean they can't be marked in some way.) And there will also be the occasional post about other collected editions or individual issues.

To kick off, this month I'll be looking at the next volume of several series where the reviews so far have had the highest number of views. Some were incredibly popular immediately after I posted then, others have been steady over time.
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