Friday, 28 February 2014

Essential Savage She-Hulk volume 1

Essential Savage She-Hulk volume 1 contains issues #1-25 of The Savage She-Hulk, the complete run of the character's original title. The first issue is written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Buscema; they are succeeded by David Anthony Kraft and Mike Vosburg for the entire of the rest of the run. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for She-Hulk and Man-Wolf.

As I've discussed before, She-Hulk, like Spider-Woman, was created solely for the corporate aim of securing the intellectual property on a female version of one of Marvel's big name heroes before a television company did. With The Incredible Hulk television series a strong success there was a fear that it could lead to spin-offs and imitation characters, and so Marvel decided to create their own female Hulk to see off such attempts. But whereas Spider-Woman had been distanced from Spider-Man as much as possible, She-Hulk is a much closer character to her male counterpart in both relationship and origin.

The first issue establishes all the key points and the origin, but surprisingly it's rather ambiguous about whether it follows comic or television continuity and at times tries to side step the issue. Dr Banner arrives in Los Angeles but the story actively declines to tell us if his first name is Bruce, David or Bob (a mistake in an early guest appearance that was later morphed into his full name) and bizarrely his cousin calls him "Doc". There's even reference to a medical career. When he recounts the origin of the Hulk it's the comic version, but his identity is publicly known by this stage whereas in the television series he's assumed dead and on the run using assumed aliases. So for his cousin to not know what's happened to him suggests either a high degree of ignorance for a lawyer or else a mixed attempt to be accessible to both the comic and television audience. Nowadays it's standard for comics to just ignore the changes to character names, tone and continuity of spin-off adaptations, or make limited lip service, but it seems in times past some more active efforts were made to bring new readers in. Unfortunately this just creates odd moments - the idea Jennifer Walters always calls and even thinks of her cousin as "Doc" just seems strange, and highlights the story's sitting on the fence between two different continuities.

The origin itself is simple - lawyer Jennifer Walters is shot and given a blood transfusion by her cousin, but this also makes her change into a big green monster. She may be closely tied into her male counterpart, but tying to avoid them had been a mistake with Spider-Woman and so perhaps it's better that this time Marvel went down the Supergirl route and made her a relative, though in practice throughout her history she's largely stood or fallen on her own merits. This starts right here with her cousin's only other appearances being a couple of brief flashbacks and a group pin-up at the end. She-Hulk is also notable as the last character co-created by Stan Lee for many years (until Ravage 2099 in the 1990s) but his sole issue here doesn't feel that great. Jennifer doesn't turn into the She-Hulk until late in the story and there isn't any real exploration of just how much control she has or what her limits are. At this point she's just a big fighting green-skinned woman. It's a disappointing (near) end to a long string of successful creations and origins with Lee's name on them.

Lee and Buscema leave after the first issue and it's astounding for the era (1979-1981) that all of the remaining twenty-four issues have the same writer and artist with no fill-ins at all. It's just unfortunate that the series itself is somewhat strained and tired, probably because like Spider-Woman its main reason for existing was legal rather than creative. Yet oddly the series stayed a monthly throughout its entire run and didn't dive for guest stars - perhaps because of the differences between copyright and trademarks with different effects on what does and doesn't need to be kept in print. Whatever the reason we have another series starring a female spin-off that tries to operate outside the normal comfort zone of the Marvel universe, which takes its time to sort out the lead character's background and which makes some changes to the status quo along the way, although these are more minor than Spider-Woman's. It's not the most encouraging sign, though at the time the series was launched Spider-Woman was only halfway through its run and only formally signalled the warning signs during the last few months of Savage She-Hulk.

At its core the series presents Jen Walters, a lawyer in Los Angeles who can now transform into a large, very strong green woman. For the first half of the series the transformations largely come about whenever Jen gets angry - and she is easily inflamed by arguments in court or the office - but following a serum developed by Morbius to cure other problems, Jen is now able to transform back and forth at will. There's a clear continuity of memory and identity between Jen and She-Hulk, in contrast to her cousin who has spent most of his history fighting the Hulk as separate personalities, but at times both Jen and She-Hulk refer to the other in the third person and increasingly prefer to stay as the She-Hulk as much as possible. The most prominent point where the two are going in different directions comes in their relationships, with She-Hulk having an active relationship with Jen's childhood friend Danny "Zapper" Ridge and Jen herself falling for Richard Rory, formerly of the Man-Thing series. She-Hulk's character is very different from later portrayals, being angry, violent, paranoid and untrusting, in sharp contrast to the fun-loving at ease version who even knows she's a comic character. Her clothing is invariably rags and it's not clear which is the greater mystery - why does the transformation always tear the clothes in such a way that her breasts are kept covered or how does Jen manage to afford the large number of clothes she literally goes through?

Jen's life is reasonably well developed with a supply of supporting cast members, but some of the details of her background surprisingly only slip out as the series progresses. We never actually see a flashback showing her mother's death and instead it's only steadily dropped in that she was killed by gangster Nick Trask. Jen has an awkward relationship with her father, local sheriff Morris Walters, which deteriorates over the course of the series when they clash over her decision to defend Morbius from murder charges and then when Morris falls for Beverly Cross a gold-digger also seeking revenge for her boyfriend's arrest, who manipulates him in pursuit of money. This is another plot point badly handled as we never actually see Morris and Bev meet and although Morris discovers the truth and throws Bev out, the cancellation of the series means we never see the final showdown as she seeks revenge. Morris also falls into the Thunderbolt Ross role of doggedly determining to bring the She-Hulk in, but he eventually relents when evidence emerges clearing her of all charges.

So too does Assistant District Attorney Dennis "Buck" Bukowski with whom Jen regularly clashes both inside and outside the courtroom. Buck is indirectly responsible for the She-Hulk being accused of murder when he rams his car at her, mistakenly assuming she's about to attack Jen in her car. In fact the driver is Jen's friend Jill and the car has been sabotaged, with the result Jill crashes and dies. Jen takes her failure to save her friend bitterly, and when the car is subsequently examined and Buck realises his mistake he becomes a very different man, guilt-ridden and far less confrontational. Unlike other changes in the series this one feels a natural flow as Buck's realises the cost of his arrogant assumptions. Jill's death impacts in other directions as Zapper hopes Jen will turn to him. A medical student, Zapper has known Jen since childhood when she used to baby-sit and protect him, and whereas he has a big crush on her she seems to still regard him as a little surrogate brother. However She-Hulk takes him differently and the two at times retreat to his parents' isolated beach house. Zapper makes mistakes though, such as when he's tricked into thinking She-Hulk can help cure cancer when in fact it's a ploy to study her genetics. Their relationship is also complicated by Jen falling for Richard Rory, who has briefly found huge luck gambling in Las Vegas, before losing his money when the radio station he buys is ruined by an energy wave. Richard and Zapper remain tense rivals throughout the latter half of the series but are able to put this aside when needs be to help Jen/She-Hulk. In the end she decides she prefers being the She-Hulk and settles with Zapper, to the sadness of Richard.

The series has a handful of guest stars, starting with the Hulk and Iron Man, before moving onto the likes of the Man-Thing, Morbius the Living Vampire, here partially cured, the Man-Wolf and Hellcat. But despite the appearance of some superheroes, She-Hulk does not see herself as a superhero, and explicitly says so more than once. However she faces a wide variety of foes. The first handful of issues focus upon Jen's defence of gangster Lou Monkton from a murder charge frame by crimelord Nick Trask and subsequent actions against both Jen and She-Hulk - Trask is the first to discover they are one and the same. The storyline takes an odd turn in issue #5 when Los Angeles is plagued by earthquakes and refineries are finding their oil is being stolen - it's all being done by Trask using a giant burrowing machine shaped like a snake. Perhaps fortunately he loses control of it and ends it being buried in the centre of the Earth as the character has been twisted beyond his original purpose, even if he is responsible for the death of Jen's mother. It's a pity as in theory he could have been opened out into an archenemy, but the change in scope is too blunt for this to work. After this She-Hulk faces a mixture of foes including some quite bizarre ones. A trip to Florida brings an encounter with a civilisation who have discovered eternal life but have lost the spirit of life in the process. Back home there's "the Word", the charismatic head of a cult who can persuade anyone of anything, and his daughter Ultima, who has developed superstrength, and then comes Gemini, a being who can split into two halves with opposing personalities and outlooks. There's the Grappler, a master of leverage. Finally the last few issues see She-Hulk put through a gauntlet by the mysterious "Doc" (no relation) who works through subordinates such as would-be new crimelord the Shade, or through student Ralphie Hutchins who is evolved into a variety of monstrous forms including the Brute, the Seeker, Radius, Torque and Earth-Lord.

Not every story has such clear foes, and in succession She-Hulk faces the problems on a microscopic world that exists upon her necklace then a young would-be singer suffering from diabetes and an inability to recognise her own failures, and then the problems of microwave transmitters when a company erects a communication tower on a childcare centre. This latter issue (#16) feels like a generic rant about the way such technology has been imposed upon people (and it was written a few years before mobile phones had even arrived on the market let alone before transmitters were everywhere) and just sits oddly in the series overall. Later a rich businessman develops a special hydraulic suit and seeks to capture She-Hulk using the identity of the Man-Elephant.

The later issues also see Jen succumbing to preferring the form of She-Hulk the more and in her paranoia fleeing from all others who she feels have betrayed her, despite their only trying to help. It's not a full on identity crisis but rather a question of lifestyle and the addiction of power, and this makes for a somewhat different focus from the average Hulk tale. The series ends semi-abruptly with the defeat of Doc, reconciliation between Jen and Morris, the choice of Zapper over Richard and the final decision to stay as She-Hulk. However a handful of plotlines are left dangling such as the disappearance of Morbius and just how Bev will get her revenge on Morris.

The series may be competent but it's never really spectacular. Maybe it's because the foes and situations the She-Hulk faces are rarely memorable. Perhaps it's the weak characterisation of the main character as over angry and untrusting. Reading through the volume it's hard to escape the conclusion that there wasn't a great deal to the character before John Byrne got his hands on her, first in Fantastic Four and then later in her second series, Sensational She-Hulk, which launched in 1989. At this stage she's underdeveloped, brought into existence for corporate necessity rather than any natural outgrowth, and without a particularly good lure the result is a somewhat pedestrian series that just doesn't excite.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Essential Monster of Frankenstein volume 1

Essential Monster of Frankenstein volume 1 contains Monster of Frankenstein #1-5 then under the title Frankenstein Monster #6-18, plus Giant-Size Werewolf #2 and material from the magazines Monsters Unleashed #2 & #4-10 and Legion of Monsters #1. It also includes the Monster's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The writing on all the series is mainly split between Gary Friedrich and Doug Moench, with Bill Mantlo contributing the final issue of Frankenstein Monster. The art is by a mixture of mainly Mike Ploog, John Buscema and Val Mayerik, with individual issues by Bob Brown and Don Perlin.

The series opens with a three part adaptation of the original novel combined with a framing sequence set in 1898 as Robert Walton, the great-grandson of the captain of the same name from the novel, leads an expedition to the Arctic locate the Monster's body. However it soon becomes clear the Monster is far from dead. As with the Tomb of Dracula, Monster of Frankenstein takes the famous novel as its starting point, treats it as an account of real events (although unlike Dracula the book itself is never actually mentioned in the comics) and introduces the descendants of some of the characters in it. Indeed the idea goes back even earlier to the original Silver Surfer series where the Surfer clashed with the descendant of Frankenstein himself. The Monster himself is notably different from the classic Universal Pictures Boris Karloff appearance, being closer to the deformed creature of Mary Shelley's text. However as the series and character develop there's an increasing drift towards the Hollywood image of a monster called "Frankenstein" lumbering through fellow monsters and other wild situations. Issue #6 sees the series' title change to Frankenstein Monster, a word order that can satisfy the popular use of "Frankenstein" for the Monster rather than the creator but without upsetting those who are aware of the distinction. And although it varies a bit with the different artists, there are times when the depiction of the Monster gets much closer to the traditional Hollywood portrayal.

But despite these drifts the series broadly remains faithful to Shelley's vision, with the original novel adapted quite well and even adhering to the narrative structure of telling it in flashback, with the narrators here consisting of the younger Captain Walton and the Monster himself. We get an additional tale of the creature's final exploits around the start of the nineteenth century and overall we get a rather sympathetic portrayal of the poor creature brought to life in a world that hates and fears him, rejected from birth by his "father" and cursed to wander the world, not even dying but entering suspended animation twice, once after the events of Shelley's novel and another time in issue #12 when the creature is moved from 1898 to the present day. The series doesn't pull its punches about the grittiness of the situation, with the Monster killing a number of people and animals in the course of his wanderings, and almost everybody he befriends soon comes to grief.

A recurring theme is the Monster's relations with the Frankenstein family. Having failed to kill Victor Frankenstein with his own hands, he seeks vengeance upon the heirs. In 1898 he eventually meets Vincent Frankenstein, a great-great nephew of his creator, but is denied his chance when a maid kills her master for neglecting his wife. Unknown to the Monster, Vincent is not the last of the Frankensteins as his wife has died giving birth to a boy. In the present day we meet Veronica Frankenstein, a descendant, who helps the Monster by repairing his larynx, thus restoring his power of speech. It seems as though nearly two centuries of hate and bitterness have come to an end with this reconciliation. However the very last page of the comic series (though not the volume) sees the introduction of Baroness Victoria von Frankenstein, who states she is the great-granddaughter of his creator. How she can be a direct descendant when the Monster killed Victor's only wife on their wedding night isn't explained here (and let's not get into the quagmire of counting generations). The Official Handbook entry for the Monster states she is heiress to the family title but not a direct descendant so it remains to be seen what her connection is or why Vincent and Veronica were seemingly unaware of her line, believing themselves to be the last of the Frankensteins.

This isn't the only sign where the series's continuity lapses a bit. This is particularly noticeable around issue #12 when the Monster is taken to Vincent Frankenstein's London townhouse in 1898 but leaves what looks like an eastern European castle but appears to be located in northern Europe (although a later issue establishes the Monster had re-entered the ocean in Switzerland - a landlocked country). The Monster falls into suspended animation for many decades, during which what appears to be the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, or an even earlier conflict, is fought. When the Monster is revived in the present day, the details of his resurrection are glossed over in the pages of his own series, with readers directed to issues of the magazine Monsters Unleashed, and the placement order of in the volume keeps those tales back until the end. Meanwhile the 1898 encounter with Dracula in issues #7-9 is at variance with the vampire's early continuity, and may have contributed to considerable confusion in his series about just how long he had been inactive for. And up until this encounter the Monster is able to speak but then his larynx is torn. Yet ten issues later Veronica Frankenstein performs an operation to allow him to speak and he's treated as though this is the first time he's been able to do this.

The X-Men had briefly encountered an alien android who was presented as having been the basis for the Monster. The Official Handbook entry mentions the android only for long enough to establish it as a separate character without going into detail now that the novel had been accepted as a real account. Otherwise the volume contains no mention of any other appearances of either Frankensteins or beings like the Monster. But this doesn't mean the series exists in isolation from the rest of Marvel's output. But despite spending some time in New York City there are no appearances by the most familiar superheroes. Instead the Monster crosses over with other characters from the horror output. The trinity of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Werewolf have become commonplace not just in Marvel but across the horror genre in general and so it's entirely appropriate that the Monster encounters Dracula here, even if it is at the expense of understanding the vampire's continuity, and goes on to meet with the Werewolf. The fight with Dracula is by far the more significant as a gypsy girl who has befriended the Monster is transformed into a vampire and tears his larynx, ending his ability to speak and so altering the dynamic of subsequent encounters. The story is slightly reminiscent of an earlier issue in which a young woman befriends the Monster only to turn out to be a werewolf, a fact he doesn't realise until after he has slain the beast.

The Monster wanders afar with a sense of nobility, often willing to help others in danger in the hope that he can find fiends and a sense of identity, but invariably with tragic consequences. Some of the people he saves reject him in terror. Others turn out to be, or are turned into, dangerous beings that have to be stopped. Others still become friends but are soon killed. The Monster is a truly tragic figure, lacking a clear identity and made up of various bits and pieces. Unfortunately the series becomes the same.

The early issues show a coherency as the Monster is revived and sets out to find the last remaining Frankenstein, with the late nineteenth century setting helping to contribute to a neo-Gothic feeling. However there are some strange individual moments, such the giant spider that feeds on souls and resides in the German Castle Frankenstein. Vincent Frankenstein is a creation much closer to the Hollywood legend version of his great-great uncle rather than the literary portrayal, complete with a laboratory in a castle (also named "Castle Frankenstein" though it's in the United Kingdom) and a deformed hunchback servant who doesn't always agree with what his master is up to. Once in the present day the situations become more random as the Monster encounters and fights, variously, a Satanic cult, a bizarre creature formed by an accident in genetic engineering, the shady International Crime Organization Nexus (ICON) and the Beserker android.

A major flaw in the presentation of the series, reproduced in this volume, is the holding back of the details of the Monster's revival in the present day for the series Monsters Unleashed. As a result this volume leaps forward and backwards within the Monster's chronology, and the revival tale doesn't feel strong enough to justify using it in a separate and non-Code series. We get a rambling tale (which, on its original publication, skipped an issue and so took many months to tell) in which a neuroscientist has invented a means of transplanting brains between bodies in order to survive but gets transferred into the Monster's body when his student assistant foolishly assumes this is the solution to dying of cancer. An accident results in the scientist's brain being eventually transferred into the body of a mouse, with the mouse's brain temporarily controlling the Monster and accidentally crushing the scientist. Throw in the scientist killing the assistant, a bit of zombie magic thrown in to allow the assistant to fight the scientist even after death and a trapeze artist whose brain and body also get transferred around, and the whole thing just becomes one chaotic mess. There's a few elements that would have been barred from appearing in a Code approved comic such as the assistant coming back as a zombie and possibly the basics of transferring brains, but the story is so weak the use of such elements just doesn't justify taking a key part of the Monster's story away from his own series. The rest of the Monsters Unleashed stories are better with one tale of a man who believes himself to be ugly after he was rejected by a woman and so donned an ugly mask and recruited other "freak" outcasts for his revenge. However the revelation of his real face causes the outcasts to turn on him. The Monster saves the woman and hopes she might become his friend as he carries her unconscious form home, protecting her on multiple occasions, but when she regains consciousness she rejects him and flees.

The final two stories in the volume offer a glimmer of hope of a better approach. The last in Monsters Unleashed sees the Monster sneak aboard a train where he is befriended by a female hobo. They discover the train is a decoy for a Presidential trip and get caught up in assassination attempts. Tragically the girl is killed when the train is blown up, leaving the Monster once more all alone. The story from the sole issue of Legion of Monsters sees the Monster stumble into a costume party where he is accepted by all and falls for a beautiful woman, but he is tricked into following one man whilst another kills the girl and frames the Monster. He deals with the killer but once more he is left alone and friendless with others assuming the worst of him.

The Monster is an unfortunate creature who was created with great hopes but was assembled from bits and pieces drawn from a wide variety of sources and wandering about in search of an end to its agony and in search of a purpose in life. Unfortunately some of that description also applies to the series in general. It starts off amazingly well but gradually loses its way. Perhaps the turning point is the encounter with Dracula which shows the problems of the Monster interacting with the wider Marvel universe in 1898, but most of the stories set in the present day feel somewhat aimless. The Monster lacks a name but has a strong identity and a nobility that deserved stronger material than this.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains the Captain Marvel strips from Marvel Super-Heroes #12-13 then Captain Marvel #1-21 and a bonus story from the comedy series Not Brand Echh #9. Marvel Super-Heroes was an anthology series, previously entitled Fantasy Masterpieces, which variously combined try-out new material with reprints from the Golden Age; later it would carry reprints of more recent material including a long run reprinting the Incredible Hulk. Stan Lee writes the first Marvel Super-Heroes and is then followed by Roy Thomas who writes up until issue #4 of the titled series and again from #17 and also the Not Brand Echh story. Arnold Drake and Gary Friedrich write most of the intervening issues, with one other by Archie Goodwin. Gene Colan draws as far as issue #4 and also the Not Brand Echh story, then the others are drawn by Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Tom Sutton, Gil Kane and John Buscema.

Captain Marvel was not only one of the last Marvel Silver Age superhero features to get an Essential volume, but was also the last one to be created in that era. After the initial burst of creativity that produced everyone from the Fantastic Four to Daredevil, there was then a period in which the emphasis was on consolidation rather than expansion, giving pre-existing characters their own strips, and the debuts seemed to be done with. Then in 1967 came this new feature. Was he the product of a late surge of creativity that led to Stan Lee and his artists to come up with just one more character? Or did he serve some ulterior purpose?

Even without consulting wider comic histories it seems clear it was the ulterior purpose and it shows. Captain Marvel appears to be the first in a long line of Marvel characters created for the purpose of securing intellectual property rights. Often such characters get rushed into print before the idea has been thoroughly thought through, resulting in some rather confusing early years as the premise, powers and/or backstory get revised in order to work better, and eventually the character is given up with the codename transferred to a new hero, often one with no connection at all to the original. Unfortunately this pattern is all too clear with Captain Marvel. Over the course of this single volume we get a series that starts off as a tale of an alien military spy yet by the end he's become a cosmic powered hero fused with a human being. The series got its first cancellation during the course of this volume yet it was revived barely six months later as a bimonthly. The last regular issue in the volume ends with a note explaining this has been a try-out and "Now, his fate is in your hands -- you, the reader! We'll be waiting for your verdict!" But these two issues were just a try-out and the series did not continue for another two years. It's hard to disguise that the series had not been terribly successful and yet Marvel kept on trying to keep the name "Captain Marvel" on the newsstands.

The real purpose was clearly down to the "use it or lose it" requirements of trademark law that mean a company can't simply hold onto a name to prevent competitors from using it; they must regularly actively exploit the trademark. Exactly how frequently can vary, as can the precise means by which the mark is used, but one consequence is a particular code name can appear on the shelves repeatedly and for multiple characters simply because of the risk of otherwise losing it. This is why names like "Spider-Woman" have been used so many times and also why some of the various "Captain Marvel"s have no connection to each other whatsoever. The name "Captain Marvel" had been used before; first for a highly successful character published by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s & 1950s until DC brought a copyright suit, and then the name had been briefly used by M. F. Enterprises for a short-lived hero. Clearly the risk of rivals being able to publish comics with "Marvel" in the title was too great and so Marvel were clearly moving to tie up the trademark before yet another company printed a comic called "Captain Marvel". Indeed when the Marvel series was revived again in 1972 from issue #22, it came just a few months before DC revived the Fawcett Captain Marvel (since DC could hardly breach its own copyright). Had Marvel foreseen its rival's move and rushed to reinforce its mark? It just served to reinforce the pattern as a whole succession of Captain Marvels would be wheeled out over the years. (DC revived the Fawcett character but because Marvel had already got to the trademark, DC have been unable to sell their version under the logo of "Captain Marvel" - although this doesn't affect what the character is called inside the strip - leading to the use of alternatives such as "Shazam".) But in the process Marvel forget to create a particular exciting scenario and series, and eventually had to change just about everything other than the lead character's name.

The series starts by tapping into the contemporary fads of spies and space science fiction. We see Mar-Vell, a captain in the Kree armed forces, sent on a mission to Earth, though the precise details of his mission vary between revenge for earlier defeats and spying upon the world to determine the threat level. The original given mission is ridiculous for one man, even one as skilled as Mar-Vell, so it's no surprise that it gets changed early on under a different writer. However the new mission becomes equally silly because a Kree scout ship is hiding in orbit and observing Mar-Vell all the time - so why not just cut out the middle man and do the spying from orbit without the risk of arousing suspicions on Earth? A lot of the problem is that the real reason for sending Mar-Vell onto the planet is the jealousy of his superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, for Mar-Vell's relationship with medic Una. Yon-Rogg belongs to a line of suitors who believe that simply disposing of a rival without even concealing their involvement or hatred will result in a woman falling into their arms. I don't have the real life statistics to hand to check just how many men have succeeded with this method of courting, but I suspect it's very few if that.

There's an attempt to make this a science-fiction romantic story with the regular complications of Yon-Rogg trying to get Mar-Vell either killed on his mission or executed as a traitor, but it rapidly becomes tiresome, even when an additional angle is added to the triangle in the form of human Carol Danvers (later Ms. Marvel then Binary then Warbird then Ms. Marvel again then yet another Captain Marvel - have I missed any out?). It's trying to give a sense of purpose and tragedy to the story but we don't see a great deal of Una and what we do see just doesn't make her a compelling character but instead a weeping wet blanket. It's hard to grasp just what Mar-Vell and Yon-Rogg see in her to the point that the Colonel is prepared to destroy one of his best officers in pursuit of her. The result is that the core motivation for the hatred between Mar-Vell and Yon-Rogg just doesn't convince and so we're left with an endless succession of adventures as Mar-Vell settles on Earth, assuming the guise of the dead Dr Walter Lawson, and finds himself torn between his orders and his realisation of the value of the planet. As a result he comes to the protection of humans multiple times, under the "Americanized" form of his name, Captain Marvel, and equally regularly has to justify his conduct as Yon-Rogg tries to get him prosecuted.

The idea of the noble enemy who comes to a society with orders to destroy it yet rebels when they discovers what the inhabitants are like had been done before with the Silver Surfer and no doubt with many earlier ones, but often it isn't too obvious just what they see in the society or how it is they always seem to meet the best examples. Here Mar-Vell spends most of his time around a missile base in Florida or at a nearby motel with a suspicious night clerk, interacting with a limited number of base personnel and townsfolk, and getting caught up in protecting humans from various alien incursions. At the base the main characters are the base commander General Bridges and the security chief Carol Danvers. Carol is presented as a clear potential romantic interest from the outset and we soon get the all too familiar scenario whereby she falls for the hero but is hostile to his secret identity. Eventually she and Mar-Vell share a kiss, to the delight of the watching Yon-Rogg and the horror of Una, but nothing really comes of it and Carol disappears when the series overhauls itself.

Mar-Vell battles a number of menaces ranging from a Kree sentry to the Super Skrull. The latter is, I think, the first time a Kree and a Skrull had faced off in a Marvel comic though we learn they've been enemies for centuries. Other existing Marvel foes include Quasimodo the living computer. There are new threats such as the Metazoid, a mutated being created by the Communists, or Solam, a solar energy creature drawn to Earth by accident, the Aakons, another alien race, the Organization, a criminal outfit, the Cybrex, a robot built by the real Walter Lawson, the Man-Slayer, a robot created by Communists and the Puppet Master (in a crossover with the Avengers and th Sub-Mariner, however only the Captain Marvel issue is included here). There are also the inevitable clashes with other heroes such as Namor the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man and, later on, the Hulk, though the Captain America depicted on the volume's cover (reused from issue #17) is in fact an illusion generated by Mar-Vell to draw Rick Jones in.

From issue #11 onwards the series starts to transform itself into something different and steadily ditches a lot of the baggage. Una is casually killed off by a stray shot in battle with the Aakons, and Mar-Vell boards a rocket which gets thrown into deep space where he meets an all-powerful being who gives him enhanced powers, including flight, casting illusions and teleportation. Subsequently we learn that Mar-Vell has long been manipulate by the Kree ministers Ronan the Accuser and Zarek as part of a planned coup against the Supreme Intelligence. Zarek is motivated by concerns about the Kree racial stock but fortunately for a black and white reprint this is about the only moment that touches upon the racial tensions within the Kree Empire whereby blue-skinned Kree have come to see themselves as the original pure stock and are hostile towards pink-skinned Kree such as Mar-Vell, seeing them as the result of mixing with lesser races. As a reward the Supreme Intelligence gives Mar-Vell yet further powers and a new costume, his most familiar one, but the hero is now cut off from the Kree. He is soon trapped in the Negative Zone and the only escape, however temporary, is through bonding with another being and regularly trading places with them. And so Rick Jones is lured into a cave in the desert.

When introduced in issue #17, Rick Jones seems several years younger than he's normally portrayed, looking almost like a child. Was this just an error by Gil Kane or was it a deliberate homage to Billy Batson, the original Fawcett Captain Marvel? There are other elements to his introduction that feel like a retread of how Billy was introduced to Shazam, and indeed in the pre-Crisis Fawcett & DC stories Captain Marvel and Billy were treated as separate personalities. But whatever the motivation, the result is that Captain Marvel now shares his existence with a mortal. After a final tidy-up with a showdown in which Yon-Rogg is killed and Carol saved, the series now embarks fully in its new direction.

However the last few issues are just strange. In one Rick finds himself caught up in a strange sociological experiment run by a scientist who uses a luxury block of flats as a giant laboratory. Then in the revived try-out Mar-Vell clashes with both the Hulk and the Rat Pack, a bunch of hi-tech looters. By the end of the series everything has changed beyond recognition and it's no longer clear at all just what it's all about.

Captain Marvel is a series that's quite well drawn and the individual issues flow quickly without any obvious stinkers. But the overall direction of the series is a total mess and the result is a rather meandering flow. The Not Brand Echh story included here plays on the fact that "Captain Marvin" can't remember what his mission is. Whether by accident or design it winds up parodying the series in more ways than one as it really doesn't know what its purpose is for. This was one of the earliest series whose sole reason for existing was legal rather than creative and its artificialness is all too easy to see.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1 contains all ten issues of the magazine Tales of the Zombie plus a story from each of the first couple of issues of the magazine Dracula Lives! Bonus material consists of the cover of Annual #1, an all reprint issue. The early issues of Tales of the Zombie and one of Dracula Lives! also carried some reprints of stories from Marvel's earlier horror comics and these are included here; they come from the likes of Mystic, Menace, Journey into Mystery and Chamber of Darkness. Writers on the series include Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Kit Pearson, Marv Wolfman, Tom Sutton, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, Gerry Conway, John Albano, Len Wein, Carl Wessler, Larry Lieber, David Anthony Kraft, Chris Claremont and John Warner. Artists include Sutton, John Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Win Mortimer, Vincente Alcazar, Enrique Badia, Rich Buckler, Vic Martin, Ron Wilson, Ernie Chan, Syd Shores, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Alfredo Alcala, Michael Kaluta, Virgilio Redondo, Yong Montano and Tony DeZuniga. Unfortunately some of the reprints predate the era of credited creators so there's a degree of omission and guess work (which invariably is better at identifying artists than writers) involved here. Identified creators include writers Stan Lee and Chuck Robinson, and artists Ayers, Gene Colan, Bill Everett, George Tuska, Ralph Reese, Tony Dipreta, Bill Walton and Russ Heath. One of the Dracula Lives! stories is a reprint drawn by Dipreta, the other is new and written by Thomas and drawn by Colan. That's a HUGE amount of credits so the labels have spilled over into three other posts, one and two for new work and a third for reprints.

One of the joys of the Essentials is to be shown glimpses of fads in popular culture that have otherwise been generally forgotten. Here is a strong reminder of early 1970s America's fad for all things Voodoo (and that's the spelling used throughout rather "Vodou" or "Vodun"), which is otherwise primarily preserved for modern audiences in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. (Issue #4 of the magazine even carried a rather critical review of that film by Don McGregor, reproduced here along with so many other text features. I had to suppress a chuckle at the text's comment about how actor David Hedison was probably one of the few glad that the film lacked the scene from the book where Felix Leiter is fed to a shark. But it took sixteen years before Licence to Kill dipped Hedison into a shark tank.) Voodoo magic, especially the walking dead, was fascinating many. The magazine format meant that Marvel could produce, or reproduce, material that wasn't bound by the shackles of the Comics Code Authority, starting with the series's very name as the lead character could be unambiguously presented as a "zombie" rather than a "zuvembie" or some other Code friendly spelling that takes away the impact and sheer horror associated with the word.

But this series wasn't the first time Marvel had dabbled with zombies. A number of their 1950s titles had featured them and several stories are reprinted here. Such was the impact of the original stories that one of them, simply entitled "Zombie!" from Menace #5, was selected and built upon to provide the main character and his daughter. Bill Everett thus emerged as the creator of an ongoing character some two decades after working upon the original strip and right at the end of his life. (An editorial in the first issue wishes Everett a speedy recovery but sadly it was not to be. Not included here is a tribute piece from the second issue.) Oddly the first issue doesn't credit Stan Lee's work on the story - maybe his infamously bad memory was at work and perhaps just once he failed to do what he semi-jokes he always does and take any credit that isn't nailed down. The original story is reprinted as the Zombie's chronological second appearance, but the twist at the end of the tale is now lost because of what is shown before it. However the newly created origin ties in well with the original story, though I don't know if the latter underwent any modifications from what was printed in the 1950s in order to match the new material. And the new material came in many different forms.

The magazines were more than just comics by another name. As well as several strips, both new and old, they also contained a number of features and the occasional text story. In several ways they remind me of London Editions Magazines/Fleetway Editions's Superman and Batman titles from c1988-1995 which had a similar strip and text feature approach and which were amongst my introduction to US superhero comics (if I remember and understand correctly, the earlier years of LEM's output was in an exceptionally rare period when the DC superheroes had a better presence on the British newsstands than the Marvel ones; Marvel UK at the time being primarily focused on licensed spin-off titles). These articles delve into a number of aspects relating to both zombies and Voodoo, ranging from the origins of the religion to some of the best books then available on the subject to the portrayal in movies to the culture clash in New York as the rituals of animal sacrifice met legislation barring them and the public's reaction to finding decapitated animals in the park. There are in-depth looks at a number of Voodoo and zombie movies, including some previews. Overall the tone of the articles is highly sympathetic to Voodoo, even though most of the authors appear to be atheists, noting that it has been distorted by media depictions but in fact is rather harmless. "In fact, with the exception of those rites involving animal sacrifice, Voodoo is probably as harmless as Presbyterianism, albeit more colorful," writes Chris Claremont in issue #7 before going on to point out "...there have been no Voodoo holy wars, no Voodoo inquisitions, and no Voodoo tax-exempt real estate holdings." In general the series sets out to portray Voodoo in a non-negative light despite also having to meet popular expectations. However it's not so clear about the differences between the Voodoo practised in Haiti, in west Africa and in Louisiana and in other parts of the United States, tending to present them all as one.

Within that we get a mixture of new and reprinted stories, some focusing upon the title character, others telling one-off tales of encounters with zombies and Voodoo. Whether original or reprinted, these back-up strips are often highly entertaining and at the same time quite dark. We see the fate of an butterfly collector as his son's wish that he'd stop capturing and sticking pins into the insects comes true, or four female prisoners escape and reach the isolated home of one of their aunts only to come to grief one by one. Then there's the white hunter in Dahomey (now Benin) who is searching for gold and his long lost brother, but his atrocious treatment of the locals backfires on him. There are tales of murder victims taking their own revenge or of families turning upon one another and more. The anthology format is now rarely seen amongst US comics but it's always good to allow creators the chance to come up with completely one-off stories and the results are a strong pleasing mix.

However the main attraction is the lead feature, telling the story of the zombie that was New Orleans businessman Simon Garth. Reading through these tales I found it absolutely astounding that there is an almost total lack of appearances by the wider Marvel universe. Simon Garth may have popped up in Dracula Lives! but only as a passing cameo when Dracula visits New Orleans. Indeed the story could easily have been left out but I guess somebody wanted this volume to be the definitive Zombie collection. (The story had already seen print in Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 so it wasn't as if people might assume a major team-up was missing.) Otherwise the only visitor from another series is Brother Voodoo in a couple of stories, one filling in for the lost Zombie tale. These stories are both fairly okay but fall into the realm of back-up strips and so aren't the main attractions. Still it's good to see Brother Voodoo operating without the constraints of the Comics Code Authority, even if he does still talk about "Zuvembies" instead of "Zombies". This restraint is probably the main reason why Simon Garth didn't get used in other Marvel comics at the time - significantly he didn't appear in either Marvel Team-Up or Marvel Two-in-One when virtually every other Marvel horror star did at some stage or other. This isolation works well, reflecting the lead character's own isolation but also allows the series to stand on its own feet instead of swamping things out with an endless stream of guest stars.

The first story introduces the main characters who recur throughout the series. Simon Garth is a ruthless businessman who has climbed to the top in the coffee industry but in the process he's lost much of his humanity. Arrogant and domineering in both the boardroom and the home, he has alienated his wife and tries to run his adult daughter Donna's life. He is also oblivious to the feelings of his secretary Layla. Then he is brought down when he dismisses the gardener Gyps for making unwanted advances on Donna but in retaliation Gyps kidnaps him and takes him to a Voodoo ceremony where the mambo (priestess) is Layla. She tries to free him but Gyps catches up with him and kills him, then forces Layla to bring Garth back as a zombie. Wearing the Amulet of Damballah which allows anyone holding its twin to control him, Garth now wanders the Earth as a stumbling corpse. However vestiges of his former life remain and he refuses Gyps's command to kidnap Donna, instead killing Gyps. He then spends much of the rest of the series wandering, occasionally coming under someone's control as the Amulet is successively found and lost, and otherwise surviving. The series doesn't pull its punches - the violence isn't gratuitous but it's also held back on and we see the impact on humans and animals as Garth takes action against them.

The setting shifts between Louisiana and Haiti and back again, with Garth a noble figure whose lack of speech and thought is compensated for by one of the few occasions when second person narration works. Over the course of his wanderings he encounters a number of bizarre situations, ranging from a mad scientist who briefly transforms Donna into a giant spider, to a house murder where members of a family are being picked off, to a New Orleans cult in association with a local crime lord, to a reclusive family looking after their deformed son. Garth is used and abused by a succession of individuals, most notably a group of "swingers" (party types rather than switchers) who use him to perform pranks on a number of people who've annoyed them, not realising just how dangerous this can be. Despite such abuses, Garth manages to maintain a degree of dignity throughout, helped by a part of the zombie curse that gives him a fast healing power. Midway through the series Garth is reunited with Layla, now an outcast after she tried to save him, yet tragically the swingers make him attack her for her past actions in the typing pool. However she survives long enough to give her soul to allow Garth to be restored to full life for twenty-four hours.

Issue #9 sees Garth now restored as he gets the chance to put right a lot of his past mistakes. He attends his daughter's wedding and reconciles with his ex-wife. He visits his business and apologises to his partner, then sells up and has the proceeds put into a fund for his ex-wife, his daughter and the deformed boy. And he takes action against the New Orleans crime lord and the cult who transformed him in the first place. Finally he returns to zombie form but retains enough control to use the Gris-Gris bottle Layla obtained that allows him to permanently die. The story may offer a sense of closure for Garth, but it wasn't intended that way. An editorial note at the start of issue #10 confesses how a story depicting his resurrection was written and drawn, but many of the pages were diverted in transit and ended up in Guam. It was rescheduled for issue #11 but then the series was cancelled, presumably as the Voodoo and zombie fad was now passing. Since there's nothing added after issue #10 it seems the story never saw print in any other series.

The format of the series means there aren't that many pages devoted to Simon Garth and so his story is much briefer than just about any other character with their own Essential volume. But it allows a much closer and personal story than is often the case, and shows how even the most obscure of characters from decades earlier can be put to great use. Meanwhile the other stories and features all work to give an enhanced experience. It's a pity that the magazine format will probably never be seen again as this volume offers a good look at how such a format can deliver so much.

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1 - creator labels 1

This volume has by far the largest number of creator credits so the labels need three extra posts. Links to post 2 & post 3.

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1 - creator labels 2

This volume has by far the largest number of creator credits so the labels need three extra posts. Links to post 1 & post 3.

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1 - creator labels 3

This volume has by far the largest number of creator credits so the labels need three extra posts. This one focuses on the reprinted material. Links to post 1 & post 2.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...