Friday, 26 September 2014

Essential Avengers volume 3

Essential Avengers volume 3 contains issues #47-68 and King-Size Special (i.e. Annual) #2. Everything is written by Roy Thomas and mostly drawn by John Buscema, with individual issues drawn by George Tuska, Gene Colan, Barry (Windsor-)Smith and Sal Buscema and the annual by Don Heck and Werner Roth. Bonus material consists of the team's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Also relegated to the back of the original edition are a pin-up and "Avenjerks Assemble", a comedic parody of the creative team in action, but both these come from the annual.

This volume sees a run of creativity and development with new members added to the team, several existing members departing to focus on matters closer to home, and new and recycled identities for remaining members. Meanwhile two of the team's best known villains are introduced here whilst there are also some new heroes developed, though only one joins the team immediately. Early on we get the replacement of the villainous Black Knight with his heroic nephew, who swears to right the wrongs of his uncle's criminal career and also explicitly links the character to the 1950s character whose adventures were being reprinted around this time. It's not hard to spot the writer's motivations in "correcting" a perceived earlier mistake and incorporating a pre-1961 series into the Marvel universe (although the Black Knight's thoughts and captions leave open the possibility that the Arthurian adventurer may have just been a legend with readers encouraged to make up their own mind - was this editor Stan Lee trying to rein in Roy Thomas?). That the Black Knight is a continuity tidy rather than a story development is confirmed by his taking off after a single issue rather than teaming with the Avengers for at least the rest of this phase of the Magneto storyline and only pops ups again for occasional issues throughout the rest of the run.

Another sign of attempts to add the Golden Age heroes comes in the form of the Vision and I suspect the original intention was to simply revive the 1940s character and perhaps nail down his origin once and for all. Instead we get a lookalike - and black and white makes the similarities stand out even more - android (although Hank Pym coins the term "synthozoid") who has been given the memories of Wonder Man and a near complete set of artificial body parts. The result is an artificial being with emotions, the power to alter his body's density from diamond solid to intangible and the power of heat vision. He is soon accepted onto the team in spite of the revelation that he was created by Ultron. I would have the Avengers would exercise greater caution about such a potentially deadly being spawned by their newest foe and this does come back to bite them later on.

The membership revolving door continues in these issues as Captain America largely drops out in order to focus on his life, though he comes back for a memorable time travel storyline. There are also returns by Thor and Iron Man at the end of the volume but it's unclear if they'll be sticking around for the long haul. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch leave under less ideal circumstances as the former especially becomes repulsed by the hostility to mutants that even an Avenger experiences and succumbs to Magneto's lure of a separate mutant nation, though later on in a crossover with the X-Men they finally escape from all the warring sides and fly off with the Toad. Hercules also leaves to take his place in Olympus after he and his teammates have rescued the Olympians from being banished by the Titan Typhon. But the team continues to grow with the addition of the Black Panther on the recommendation of Captain America. However at first the character is referred to only as "the Panther" as if someone had heard of the Black Panthers and had cold feet about still using the name. He also wears a different mask that leave his nose and mouth exposed - was this an early design used in error or an attempt to transfer "black" from the name to the colours? Whatever the reasoning within a few issues he's back to being "the Black Panther" and a full mask without comment about either. Nor for that matter is it initially addressed just how he can easily leave his country to go and be a New York based hero. By issue #62 it's established he left a regent in place but M'Baku launches an attempted coup d'etat under the costumed guise of the Man-Ape. The Black Panther saves his thrown with some help from his teammates but subsequent issues alternate between his defence of his homeland and his Avengers work in New York, not a situation that's sustainable for the long run.

Meanwhile we get yet another change of identity for Hank Pym as he adopts the role of Yellowjacket and marries the Wasp, albeit under the impression he's someone else altogether. "Yellowjacket" is one of those names that is lost on me because the term isn't used outside North America except perhaps for a fashion disaster. (Or part of a uniform such as the one in Hi-de-Hi! but there the garment in question and one who wears it is instead called a "Yellow Coat".) Now although it's good to see the relationship take a step forward the circumstances of the wedding feel awkward and a sign of how badly the story has dated. In 1968 the decision of the Wasp to take advantage of Hank/Goliath/Yellowjacket's change in persona and amnesia and to marry him whilst he was under the impression he was a different person may have seemed like the reasonable action of a woman tired of waiting and playing second fiddle to experiments seizing her moment to get her fiancé to finally come out of the laboratory and actually walk down the aisle with her. Today our knowledge of psychosis is far more advanced (even if the word "schizophrenia" is still frequently misused in fiction for what is actually "multiple personality disorder" or "dissociative identity disorder") and it feels as though Jan is taking advantage of Hank's mental condition to entrap him into marriage - and she's the one to declare the law says the marriage is still legal after his original persona recovers. This is Hank's fourth costumed identity in sixty issues and it's amazing nobody has started asking questions about his state of mind. Nor is it immediately clear just why the team is better served by having a second hero who can shrink, fly and sting instead of one who can grow in size. Issue #63 sees Hawkeye ditch his arrows and identity and instead take up the growth serum to become a new Goliath but the limited level of forward planning in this volume suggests this was a rapid correction of a perceived mistake rather than a deliberate decision to net replace the archer with a second kind of wasp derived hero.

It's not just the line-up of heroes which is expanded but also that of the villains. The annual introduces the Scarlet Centurion, who distorts the timeline by promising the original Avengers the chance to create a utopia on Earth by adjusting the balance of forces in the world, resulting in their taking down just about every hero and most villains. He then brings the Avengers from the original timeline to this altered world in order to ensure the teams wipe each other out. Conceptually it's a good idea in theory but it's not clear just how this world has been created by the team travelling back to 1945 to play a role in the events of Captain America's freezing that seem to have been part of the original timeline, or how the Wasp is transported to the alternate world when she's been left at the controls and her counterpart is present. And the original team prove highly gullible even if the Scarlet Centurion is exercising mind control powers that he's otherwise never been seen to use. For this villain is another identity of Kang/Rama-Tut. And then there's the rushed conclusion which seems to boil down to Goliath running around in a time machine to exercise some technobabble to reverse it all, then this magic is followed by the Watcher popping up to fill in the gaps about the Centurion's identity. All in all it's a rather wasted effort and there's no real need for another identity for Kang.

The aforementioned time travel story sees a return by Captain America as he checks himself to see whether or not Bucky could have survived the famous explosion and settles that his partner was definitely killed that day. But this isn't the only death to haunt the Avengers with the spirit of Wonder Man evoked twice. Once is when the recording of his brain patterns is used for the Vision. Before then the Avengers are attacked by Wonder Man's revenge seeking brother, the Grim Reaper who nearly takes down the entire team but for the intervention of the Black Panther. Another brother to appear is Barney Barton, Hawkeye/Goliath's criminal brother who goes straight to help the Avengers discover Egghead's space station and then sacrifices his life to destroy the villain's death ray. Not long afterwards we learn more about Barney and Clint's past in the circus and their dealings with the Swordsman, suggesting Barney will be one of those characters to make a greater impact dead than alive.

And then there's Hank's "son" and the Vision's "father" who quickly establishes himself as perhaps the toughest foe for the Avengers. Ultron is steadily built up over several issues, starting off as the mastermind behind a new incarnation of the Masters of Evil (made up once again of the Melter and the Radioactive Man, plus Klaw and Whirlwind, with the new Black Knight responding to the invitation only to spy on them) but not directly tackling the Avengers just yet. We finally learn his origin in issue #58 as Hank uncovers the memories the android suppressed of the creation of an android that rapidly evolved and developed an Oedipus complex. But the preceding issues show how little this was planned out as it's not until the origin issue that Ultron shows particular interest in targeting Hank over the other Avengers. Ultron is physically tough to begin with but subsequently obtains the new indestructible metal adamantium and uses it to build a new body. The first appearance calls himself "Ultron-5" and the second "Ultron-6" but wisely on his next upgrade he drops the numbering otherwise he'd be a recipe for continuity chaos and constantly reminding readers just how many times he's been destroyed and rebuilt. But in another sign of the times there's no attempt to hold Hank accountable for being a modern day Frankenstein inadvertently unleashing a monster into the world.

Issue #53 is the conclusion of a crossover with the X-Men. Similar issue #61 is the final part of a crossover with Doctor Strange and issues #63 to #64 overlap on events in both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel to explain the fate of various villains. But in all three cases only the Avengers issues are included here and the reader has to rely on flashbacks, captions and/or dialogue to know what's going on. In two cases there's sufficient explanation to make the story work but in the middle case it may have helped to include the relevant Doctor Strange issues. However back in 2001 it didn't seem to be the practice to incorporate crossover issues in the Essentials (though this change by 2005 when the relevant Doctor Stranges were Essentialised).

Despite not including these, this volume is a good solid run. The Avengers are by now well beyond a simplistic teaming of Marvel's main solo heroes and are instead evolving as a coherent team where members work together to sole one another's problems and collectively face the emnity earned by individual members. There may be some occasions where the stories have clearly dated, and the female members of the team still aren't being given a chance to show their full potential, but overall this volume shows the direction the team will follow for many years to come.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Sampling Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales #150-168

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins its second season this week so it's time to sample some of the agency's original adventures..

The Essentials managed to cover nearly all of Marvel's superhero output from the Silver Age. But one strip at the edge of that definition was notably left untouched. It's even more noticeable given the ongoing television series (though that doesn't star the lead character) and there are some other collected editions about. Today I'm going to take a look at one of them.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a rather generically titled tradepaperback from 2001, containing the strips from Strange Tales #150-168 (plus only the covers that feature S.H.I.E.L.D.), focusing on one creator. The first issue of the series is written by Stan Lee and the drawing sees Jack Kirby doing layouts that are pencilled up by John Buscema. Over the next few issues Roy Thomas briefly takes over the scripting but steadily all the drawing and writing tasks are assumed by Jim Steranko, who is fully writing and drawing from issue #155 onwards.

The book is in colour but it's not the original 1960s colouring. Instead Estudio Fénix provided then modern recolouring that in theory enhances the pages with a more in-depth pallet but in practice can work against the original art and produce a worse result. Computer recolouring was a fad around 2000 but it has fortunately faded away in favour of using the original colours. The digital remastering is also all too clear when looking closely at the art and lettering as it as rather too pixelated, showing the limitations of computing power at the turn of the millennium.

This volume covers the middle period of the strip's run. It had displaced the solo adventures of the Human Torch from #135 onwards and then after #168 it would get its own title as part of the general expansion of 1968, though it only lasted fifteen issues with Steranko departing after issue #5.

Steranko is possibly the comics creator with the greatest reputation per output with Mike's Amazing World of Comics showing just thirty credits, almost all of them in a three year period at Marvel. Maybe there are some missed out but it's clear that this was a brief contribution of huge influence rather than the mass work done by many of the big names. It's even more noticeable that nearly all his contributions are either on this strip or the sometimes-related Captain America.

This collection contains Steranko's first eighteen issues, plus the start of the first storyline, and what's immediately clear is that he took time to develop his style to the point where the art reaches the experimentation of fame. In the early issues he's still working from Kirby's layouts and once he takes over the full pencils he only slowly develops the bold ideas, with much of the impact instead coming from a dynamic style and imagination. But over time Steranko starts using the page as more than just a string of individual pictures, making intriguing use of the panel layout and going for greater sized spreads. The ultimate comes in issue #167 where there's a four page spread as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents storm the Yellow Claw's base. A caption by Stan Lee suggests that readers will have to buy another issue and place them side by side to get the full effect, but even accounting for inflation US $19.99 in 2001 was a rather higher price than US $0.12 in 1968 and so the spread is presented as a gatefold that looks impressive but is also a pain to fold back in without damaging it. The art also makes use of abstract and psychedelic images and photorealism, with the cover to issue #4 of the solo series (reused as the cover for the collection despite the issue not being included) being perhaps the ultimate expression. It's easy to see why this series gained a cult following not just in the States but around the world - indeed this collection originated in Europe.

The story content follows closely with the contemporary fad for action hero spy agencies staffed by amazing heroes with special gadgets that caught the public's imagination then and now. (By accounts the real life spy and security agencies actually despair about this when they have to explain to endless politicians that their work isn't quite like that.) S.H.I.E.L.D. is all the rage with fun equipment like a flying headquarters, colour changing cars, invisibility pills, cufflinks containing weapons and more that all match the likes of the James Bond movies or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series. There's even one scene where equipment is issues by a man named Boothroyd. The agency comes with an acronym name that makes no sense whatsoever - at this point in its history S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for "Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division" - beyond meaning that someone really wanted the initials to spell out "shield".

Nick Fury himself is the modern day incarnation of the star of Marvel's war comic, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, and his comrades "Dum-Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones also serve with S.H.I.E.L.D. along with younger agent Jasper Sitwell and various others Fury is physically older, and his hair starts going grey at the temples during these issues, but physically active and brave, going into danger against ridiculous odds and surviving. At first it seems his romantic interest will be Laura Brown, the rescued daughter of the first Supreme Hydra, but later on she's phased out in favour of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a woman who challenges Fury's prejudices about female agents by showing herself just as capable at taking him down and who has the look of a Bond girl a decade before they were regularly presented as Bond's equals.

The villains are also hi-tech organisations, starting with Hydra which has a new leader, eventually revealed as Fury's wartime nemesis Baron von Strucker, and undertaking a scheme to destroy the world with new technology. Following this is a saga with the Yellow Claw, revived from a brief 1950s title, bringing with him both his niece Suwan (who has been given a make-over to become another strong fighting female) and his nemesis Jimmy Woo. The Claw is subsequently revealed to have been a robot, with the implication that the now dead Suwan is also but not before a dramatic moment as Suwan dies saving Woo's life whilst Fury and the Claw are more concerned with fighting each other than rescuing their own. From afar it is revealed that the entire situation has been a living game of chess between Doctor Doom and the Prime Mover. The final issue sees Fury in a bizarre landscape fighting monsters only to wake up and realise it was a dream - but then some real life events copy it...

Being the middle part of the original strip's run this collection lacks some introductions but also lack the early days when any strip is learning what does and doesn't work before settling into a solid run. But as a learning curve for Jim Steranko's work this book achieves its aim even if it is let down by the pixelisation and computer colouring. It's no full substitute for an Essential Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. volume but it does show the series well.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Essential Iron Man volume 2

Essential Iron Man volume 2 consists of the Iron Man strips from Tales of Suspense #73-99 and Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (the one-shot that bridged the transition from shared anthologies to solo titles), then Iron Man #1-11 and also the Sub-Mariner story from Tales to Astonish #82 that forms part of one of the earliest Marvel crossovers if not the very first between separate titles. The first issue is atypical, being a rush job written by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas and using a lot of inkers and/or pencillers. Once back to normal Lee writes every issue until #98 and then Archie Goodwin writes the rest of the volume. The Tales to Astonish story is plotted by Lee and scripted by Roy Thomas. Most of the art is a run by Gene Colan, initially under his pseudonym of Adam Austin but soon under his own name, followed by turns by Johnny Craig and then George Tuska. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by a combination of Colan and Jack Kirby.

The reproduction quality in this volume is generally good but there are some pages that make me wonder about how the material was sourced given how little original master material from the late 1960s survives. This volume was originally released in 2004, before the Masterworks had got to any of these issues, and the budget for the Essentials at the time generally didn't run to full-scale remastering of entire volumes. Some of the pages have panels of different quality and on occasion panels with colour burnt in as greyscale share a page with straightforward black and white panels. My best guess is that a lot of the material is drawn from later reprints that hacked about with the pages. As far as I can determine the last US reprints of most of these issues prior to this volume coming out had been the reprint titles Marvel Super-Heroes and Marvel Double Feature plus at least one fill-in reprint in Iron Man itself, all in the 1970s at a time when page counts were reduced and reprints sometimes cut pages. However between them those books don't seem to have covered every single issue included here and I don't know if it was the practice at the time to trim out individual panels. I'm also not sure if the holdings for reprint titles from 1970 are substantially better than for original issues from 1968. Details of foreign reprints are much harder to come by on the net but tales of pages being cut up and panels resized or removed would fit some of the results here. It's a mystery to ponder but it doesn't detract from the readability of these issues.

These issues show Iron Man at his best but also his most vulnerable. Several times his power supply runs low and he suffers heart attacks, showing just how close to death he is. Yet it raises the question about how a man who is both a great designer and the owner of a large technological corporation is unable to come up with a rather more effective set of long lasting batteries. Otherwise he continues to face a variety of foes and situations both in the armour and out of it with those around him. At one point he's taken to hospital with an attack and it's revealed he wears a chest plate, leading to public speculation that Tony Stark is Iron Man but he gets by with help from others.

The supporting cast has quite a bit of turnover here. Early on there's a continuation of the Tony-Pepper-Happy romantic triangle but eventually Pepper and Happy elope to get married and largely fade out of the series. However before then Happy is twice transformed into a monster dubbed "the Freak" whom Iron Man has to subdue. Happy has also now learnt Iron Man's secret identity and loyally protects it but unfortunately the moment when he tells Tony this takes place off panel. However Tony and Happy agree for the latter to make some token appearances in the Iron Man armour whilst the former is publicly in hospital, though it leads to Happy's capture by the Mandarin. Given all this and Pepper's dismay at Tony's absences when Happy is injured, it's not too surprising they largely drop away. Tony continues dating a large number of woman who on more than one occasion turn up in the crowds watching trouble at the factory in scenes that reminded me of the Chilean miners of a few years ago. However the women all seem to be aware of each other's existence and tolerate the situation. Later on Tony finds a mutual attraction with Janice Cord, the daughter of a rival inventor and owner who is driven by a jealousy of Tony. Janice is also considering selling her business to be integrated into Stark Industries, but there are hints her lawyer is up to something more. The series also features the first connections between Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. when the spy organisation places agent Jasper Sitwell at Stark Industries to provide extra protection for the weapons given multiple attacks and Iron Man's frequent absences. At first it seems Sitwell is just a naive kid, spouting all the slogans but seemingly clueless. However he regularly shows a much greater skill and intelligence than anticipated. Even when dating Whitney Frost and seemingly oblivious to the fact the woman is using him to find the factory's weak points he is in fact setting a trap. Meanwhile Senator Byrd has now acquired the first name "Harrington", making obvious the connection to either the-then real life Senator for Virginia Harry Byrd or his predecessor, father and namesake, but I'm not familiar with either's career to say whether the portrayal's similarities go beyond the name. Throughout the early part of the volume Byrd continues his committee's investigations into Stark Industries, even when advisers it could cost him re-election, and his actions briefly lead to Stark Industries being shut down, but Byrd abandons his pursuit after Iron Man saves the day against the Titanium Man in Washington DC and only reluctantly resumes them when Tony is framed as a Communist collaborator.

Although the propaganda has declined from the first volume, there are still some quite overt moments. I was surprised to see Iron Man visiting Vietnam in issues #92-94, originally published in mid 1967. Although the primary focus is on a return appearance by the Titanium Man, the story also contains some rather unsubtle propaganda as we meet Half-Face, a Vietnamese inventor whose work rivals Tony Stark's and whose face was deformed whilst working on weapons. Half-Face's story comes with tragedy as we hear how the Communist authorities forced him to leave his wife and child to work for the state. Later on he and the Titanium Man are under orders to destroy a village, kill the inhabitants and make it look like the work of American bombers. Half-Face turns against his masters when he realises he would have caused the death of his own wife and child but for Iron Man saving them, and so deserts Communism pledging to work for "freedom". This story would have been published just at the point when opinion polls on the war found support dropping below 50% permanently. Whereas the flag wearing side of Tales of Suspense (Captain America) had largely avoided Vietnam altogether, the capitalist and arms manufacturing side was still pushing the message that North Vietnam was run by a bad regime that needed to be removed and the Americans were the ones to do it. And Iron Man has come to the country not out of connection to his origin (which isn't mentioned at this stage despite the obvious potential for comparison with Half-Face's) but apparently to test a new design of shell that Tony Stark has developed. Though this is a cover for the military really wanting him to deal with Half-Face, it does not disguise that Stark is an active player in the conflict. Was this Marvel making a bold political statement about where it stood on the most controversial question of the day? Or was it a victim of timing, with a story prepared months earlier now appearing to miss the prevailing mood? Another story sees a Communist dictator of a Caribbean island, who is all but named as Fidel Castro, have a scientist develop and consume a strength formula and the result is the beast known as the Crusher, but the focus of the story is very much on action rather than on justifying US foreign policy against Cuba.

The Mandarin pops up several times with a variety of schemes and weapons, including both Ultimo, a giant robot buried in a volcano, and later a robot of the Hulk. On more than one occasion the Mandarin finds out Iron Man's identity but is fooled by a variety of impostor methods such as having Happy in the armour or using Life Model Decoy robots to allow Iron Man and Tony Stark to be seen in two places at the same time, as well as a disguise under the helmet. One scheme involves faking photographs to make it look as if Tony is collaborating with the Communists, producing convincing shots decades before PhotoShop. It would have worked too if the Mandarin hadn't blurted out the truth in front of reporters. Other foes come back in an enhanced form such the Titanium Man, the Melter or the Unicorn, or drift in from other titles such as the Black Knight, the Mole Man, the Grey Gargoyle or the Gladiator. There's a trip to a dystopian future where the world is ruled by Cerberus, a super computer that Tony has yet to invent. With the help of an antique set of Iron Man armour he manages to defeat it, helped by the grandfather paradox, but this sort of time travel story always falls down when it doesn't make clear the rules on whether history can be changed or not. The crossover with the Sub-Mariner seems rather inconsequential, with Namor seeking revenge on Iron Man for a distraction at a critical moment with Warlord Krang. It shows Namor to be a hothead lashing out at the wrong target but doesn't really add anything to Iron Man's story. The one-shot Iron Man and Sub-Mariner doesn't actually combine the heroes beyond the cover and seems to just be a fill-in in the schedules, perhaps because of poor planning of the switchover to solo titles.

And there's a major long running storyline featuring the Maggia, now led by the mysterious "Big M" whose identity is hidden for several issues then casually revealed in a thought bubble as Whitney Frost, the woman dating Jasper Sitwell. She is given a back story as a socialite who was engaged to a politician only to discover she was actually the daughter of Count Nefaria, causing her fiancé to abandon her to be sucked into the Maggia's world. There is a strong sense that she doesn't want to be caught up in this but has no choice, adding depth to her character and setting up possibilities for the future. The storyline also makes use of the Gladiator and introduces Whiplash, on of the more physical of Iron Man's recurring foes. A foe of a different kind comes in the form of Morgan Stark, Tony's cousin and nearest relative, who sells out Iron Man to clear his gambling debts. And there's rivalry with A.I.M., with its would be leader the scientist Mordius rapidly coming unstuck.

In general this is a solid but not particularly spectacular volume. It pulls its punches more than once by not showing such a key moment such as Tony learning that Happy knows his secret identity and is willing to help protect it and by casually revealing a major mystery villain in a thought bubble. It also comes close to throwing out most of the supporting cast without adequately replacing them - it's not clear at the end if Jasper will stick around for the long haul leaving only Janice for the time being. And the anti-Communist propaganda is wearing thin at this point. But otherwise the adventures show strong imagination and manage to keep up the vulnerable side of the hero as he struggles to survive.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Essential Thor volume 2

Essential Thor volume 2 reprints issues #113-136 plus Annuals #1 & #2. Issue #113-125 & annual #1 still have the formal title of "Journey into Mystery" but the logo and the contents mean that issue #126 is rather less of a change than a listing would imply. (Indeed references to earlier issues even call the series "Thor" not "Journey into Mystery" and there is no acknowledgement on the covers or strip pages that the series title has changed. This is already an-all Thor series.) Everything is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, initially usually credited as writer and penciller respectively but from a back-up strip on #133 onwards they're always just credited together as producing the story and at this point the volume's contents page starts giving Kirby a co-plotting credit.

That credit may be lifted from the files or represent a latter-day effort to try to rebalance things given the lengthy debates about Lee and Kirby. But this volume brings up the other great controversy about Kirby and another name on the credits. For everything bar the first three lead stories is inked by Vince Colletta.

Colletta's inking has been the subject of much discussion over the years with a lot of pencillers doing their best to avoid their work going to him at the time and saying so since. Subsequently many fans have piled in to the point that Colletta has become the poster child for slapdash inking that destroys the penciller's intentions. But Colletta has his fans as well and in recent years they have become louder. There are two lines of quite reasonable defence for some of the problems. Firstly Colletta was so fast and reliable that he often did emergency fill-in issues where a rush job was essential to getting the book out on time. On such an issue it was natural to cut corners. Secondly Colletta's work suffered particularly badly in the 20th century reprints which often had crude reproduction that undermined his fine lines. Now the first defence has a lot of validity but it should not apply to a regular assignment with a reliable artist who delivered the pencils on time. The second rebuttal is mixed here because the reproduction quality is variable. Some of the pages appear to reuse remastered versions prepared for the Masterworks or other reprints. But other pages were apparently either missing or not yet remastered - this volume came out midway through the Masterworks covering the same period - and they seem to have been sourced from elsewhere, possibly including some of the 1970s reprints that went one copy generation down rather than going back to the source.

Looking at the results in this volume I begin to think that Colletta's defenders have a point. When the reproduction works well it shows some quite charming imagery that gives the artwork a mythic quality - I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say it looks like woodcuttings, but certainly it feels appropriately old worldly - but when the reproduction is poor then the ink can get fused together and it really drags the art down. But then foresight is something many in the comics industry have lacked and so one can hardly blame Colletta for working for the original printing and not taking later reprints, of which he had no control over the methods, into account. It's hard to judge the impact of his habit of erasing lines, figures and objects in order to simplify the task as this volume only offers the finished work, but this may explain why so many pencillers were critical yet editors and art directors did not see the impact and so continued to assign him. But what is clear is that Colletta's inking is an acquired taste. Leaving aside his numerous fill-ins as necessarily requiring a short cut approach, on some regular assignments it can really drag the art down but here when allowed to breathe it can really enhance it.

The use of Norse mythology continues to be expanded in this run but increasingly the task is taken on by the "Tales of Asgard" back-up strips. Some are set during Thor's childhood, showing the deviousness of Loki beginning at a very early age, but others are set at an indeterminate point during his adulthood in Asgard. (By now Thor is treated as having always been the Norse deity and this volume doesn't touch on just what he was doing as Donald Blake before he rediscovered the hammer.) There are one parters and epics, showing the warriors of Asgard in training at home and on far away quests. Amongst the characters introduced are the Warriors Three - Fandrall, Hogun, and Volstagg - and the Vizier, all of whom subsequently appear in the present day adventures. There are also debuts by other races such as the Storm Giants and the Flying Trolls or individual foes like the dragon Fafnir. We also meet some of the great objects for the first time such as the enormous Odinsword that wields great destruction. There's even the first use of the name "Mjolnir" for Thor's hammer. And we get a glimpse of the future as Odin recounts how Ragnarok will come and destroy Asgard and all the gods, but from the ashes will rise new life. (It seems that as early as the start of 1966 Kirby was thinking about the ideas that would eventually manifest themselves at DC as the New Gods.) My knowledge of Norse mythology is quite limited so I don't know how well these adventures match the tales the Vikings told, or if they had any greater research done for them than looking at a children's story book.

Although not explicitly billed as "Tales of Asgard", perhaps because it ventures outside Norse mythology, the new story in annual #1 is also set in the past to set things up for the present. For here Thor stumbles across Olympus, home of the Greek gods, and meets Hercules for the first time. There's no attempt made to explore the simultaneous existence of two different sets of gods or to show which ones have greater powers, but instead we get a source of enemies and sometimes allies starting with a rivalry with Hercules. Later on in the present day adventures Hercules returns for further fights and briefly wins over Jane Foster but subsequently he's captured by the Greek god of death Pluto (I have never understood why Marvel calls him by his Roman name instead of his Greek name "Hades") and Thor serves as his champion to save him from being trapped as the new ruler of the underworld. Hercules's father Zeus also appears, but isn't developed too much beyond a traditional ruler sending warriors on missions and passing judgement on contracts so it's hard to judge how his parenting skills compared to Odin's. In the background of the glimpses of Olympus we also meet other Greek gods such as Hera, Ares, Pan, Dionysus, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus whilst Pluto's underworld is guarded by Cerberus. The god of death is also aided by Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons and one of Hercules's past conquests.

The back-up strips may do a lot to enhance the mythology of the series but the lead stories don't skimp on this task either. We're now into a period when a lot of Marvel series were run as ongoing sagas with subplots dragging over multiple issues rather than the earlier set of standalone adventures. This allows a whole series of themes to run together. Early on we get the debut of one of the most powerful foes Thor has yet encountered, the Absorbing Man. With the power to duplicate the properties of any substance he touches, this ex-criminal becomes a pawn of Loki and battles Thor multiple times, often duplicating the properties of the hammer to become even stronger. Amazingly Thor never actually manages to defeat him directly, although at one point Loki extracts his pawn out of fear defeat is coming, and it takes Odin's trickery to finally exile him to space. The other significant sort of Asgardian foe to appear is the Destroyer but this is a lifeless suit of armour that can be animated by the spirits of others. Elsewhere Thor fights a mixture of recurring foes - Loki continues to be especially persistent - but also has an adventure in Vietnam where in the most overt propaganda in the volume he encounters a man twisted by Communism to the point where he guns down most of his family, only to then repent and destroy a weapons stockpile. This is probably the most generic of all the adventures and could have featured almost any hero.

On a grander scale we get some cosmic adventures with the introduction of the Rigellian colonisers including Tana Nile. It's almost comical to see Nile wandering the streets of New York trying to establish her position as the ruler of the world and dealing with police officers who think they're on Candid Camera, a prank TV show similar to Beadle's About. It leads to Thor flying off into space to tackle the Rigellian homeworld but then agreeing to Earth's release in exchange for serving them on a mission into the mysterious Black Galaxy. Accompanied by a Recorder unit, a robotic anthropologist, Thor heads there and encounters the wonder of Ego the Living Planet. Coming back to Earth Thor encounters a new Camelot in Mount Wundagore in the Balkans as he meets the High Evolutionary and his Knight of Wundagore, New Men created by a accelerated "evolution" ray carried out on animals. Lee and Kirby seem unaware that evolution isn't just about growth over generations but also about adaptation to the circumstances. Nevertheless Thor's intervention causes a distraction that leads to the over-evolution of a wolf into the uncontrollable Man Beast.

The heavy pace of the series means that Thor rarely gets a chance to relax and sometimes he finds events moving rapidly without him. He goes away for a while and comes back to discover Jane Foster has been kidnapped, leading to a mystery with few suspects and so it's no surprise to discover it's journalist Harris Hobbs in search of a story. Hobbs briefly discovers Thor's identity and blackmails his way to Asgard but is returned to Earth with amnesia. Meanwhile Donald Blake finds his practice has fallen away in his absence with his patients leaving for other doctors, whilst Thor discovers the Avengers' line-up changed while he was in Asgard for an extended period. His main remaining tie to the mortal world is his nurse Jane, with this volume bookended by major developments between them. In the first issue Thor reveals his identity to her and she retains the knowledge despite Odin's disapproval. Over subsequent issues Thor finally wins his father's approval to marry Jane, though this is delayed by first her being drawn to Hercules and then by Tana Nile using her powers to make Jane go a long way away, eventually winding up as a teacher/nurse for the New Men on Wundagore. In the very last issue Thor takes Jane to Asgard but she is forced to endure a series of tests that scare her off. Jane demands to be sent back to Earth and Odin willingly complies, dropping her at a hospital with amnesia where she is immediately drawn to doctor Keith Kincaird, who resembles Donald Blake. Odin had manipulated things all along and Thor is let angry but soon calms after a battle against trolls in which he is aided by Sif. The two reunite and walk away together.

More so than the first volume, the issues in this one represents the key foundations for the series in the long run. Thor is no longer just a hero with a name and some other cast members lifted from mythology but a well developed modern day interpretation of a key individual, existing in a universe

Friday, 5 September 2014

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 contains issues #41 to #63 and Annuals #3 & #4. All the issues are credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, though it's noticeable that approximately the earlier half has credits that split the tasks between Lee on writing/scripting/"story" and Kirby on art/pencils, but the latter issues just jointly credit them as co-producing before listing the inkers and letterers. Was this an attempt at the time to acknowledge that Kirby was contributing far more than just the pencils?

Whoever is responsible for which idea, this volume continues to show a stream of creativity. In here we have the first appearances of the Inhumans - specifically Gorgon, Crystal, Karnak, Triton, Black Bolt, Lockjaw, Maximus, the Seeker and the already existing Medusa - Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Punisher (not that one), Wyatt Wingfoot, the Black Panther, Klaw the Master of Sound, Prester John, a version of the legendary mediaeval explorer, Quasimodo the sentient computer and Blastaar. There are new places as well, such as the Great Refuge, the home of the Inhumans hidden in a mountain range (which seems to move between the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas depending upon which caption you read), Wakanda, the little known African country that has developed advanced technology to rival Reed Richards's, or the Negative Zone, a strange sub-space environment containing hidden threats and fears. There are also return appearances by the Frightful Four, with the Sandman increasingly used solo and getting a new costume with extra abilities, Dragon Man, the Watcher, Doctor Doom in his most audacious scheme yet, and the Mad Thinker.

The art also shows some growth and experiments with an increased use of full page spreads and even double-paged spreads but the latter can be a pain to reproduce. In the first edition at least, there's a spread in issue #62 as Johnny, Crystal, Sue and Ben watch Reed drifting away in the Negative Zone - but the spread is split between the front and back of a single page. I don't know how it appears either in the original issue or in later Essential editions (or for that matter in other reprints over the years). The series also continues to use some real photographs and collages to represent space and weirder dimensions but these continue to suffer from 1960s printing just not being up to the task asked of it (and without the original photographic images there's only so much that latter day remastering can do).

The series is also more experimental in story structure with some stories taking place first over three issues then four and others start to seed themselves with subplots that run over many issues before being resolved. This is a series that is increasingly confident about itself and committed to being here for the long run now that the "Marvel Age of Comics" has proved to be more than just another few years long fad. Unfortunately some of the story structures feel less like bold experiments and more like bad planning and pacing. This is most prominent with the Galactus story that doesn't even begin until a third of the way into issue #48 (with the Inhumans saga wrapping up in the meantime) and then resolves itself midway through issue #50, leaving the rest of the issue to show Johnny going off to college. This must have caused problems for later reprints, especially dedicated collected editions, and even here in a long sequential run it feels as if either a decision to do something big for issue #50 crept up on Lee and/or Kirby and suddenly they had to rush to get it in, or else the Inhumans storyline was plotted on the hoof and ran out of things to do.

That story also shows vague signs of at least one of the creators starting to tire of the series, even though this volume only covers the middle part of their amazing 102 issue run. But with the Inhumans it often feels as though the Fantastic Four are largely observer on the sidelines with much of the action driven and resolved by the Inhumans themselves. Reed may save Triton's life and Johnny may have fallen for Crystal, but a lot of the story including the later escape from the dome imprisoning the Great Refuge could have been told in a dedicated Inhumans series without the Four's presence at all. Were the Inhumans originally planned to be stars in their own series? The leading characters in the Royal Family are far more individually developed than the members of the average lost or alien civilisation and each comes with a distinct costume. And this was the period when both The Addams Family and The Munsters were running on television so it wouldn't be surprising for Marvel to have its own weird family that lives detached from the rest of the world and generating a lot of comedy based on the culture clash. But this was the period when Marvel's distribution arrangements still restricted the number of titles it could publish and there simply would not have been room for a new title or anthology strip. So instead what looks like a planned debut storyline has been dropped into Fantastic Four without stopping to better integrate the regular characters into the strip. One consequence is that later on Johnny and Wyatt spend many issues trying to get Lockjaw to teleport through the barrier that seals of the Great Refuge, only for it to eventually be shattered by Black Bolt and Johnny only learns of this when Crystal reaches him. As subplots go, this one rather fizzles out. Also left unaddressed is the fate of the Frightful Four with Medusa abandoning the group to return to her family, leaving a team whose name doesn't allow much flexibility in membership size.

The Black Panther also feels like he may have been planned for his own strip from the outset, but his introduction makes a much better use of the existing characters as he invites the Four to Wakanda first to fight them as a test and then they help him against an invasion by Klaw and his mercenaries. The Black Panther's name slightly predates the political group but it's not hard to see his creation as a response to developments in race relations at the time. And rather than presenting a stereotyped noble savage or an angry man from the American streets, the fantastical series gives us a strong ruler of his own country, the hero king archetype. In the 1960s there was great hope and optimism about Africa as most of it was decolonised and the newly independent countries set about making a mark. There's no indication of Wakanda having been a colony itself but otherwise it represents this confident optimism with a paradise that has utilised its resources to produce advanced technology which the Panther is willing to lend or give to the Fantastic Four for the greater good.

Also reflecting developments of the era is Wyatt Wingfoot, Johnny's roommate at university. A Native American with a proud heritage he does not fall into the stereotypes at all, instead showing intelligence, talent and articulation. He may lack powers of his own but he proves a loyal friend to first Johnny and then the rest of the Four, helping them in several of their adventures without concern for the risk to himself. In a number of ways the series was reflecting progressive developments of the time well.

Unfortunately this wasn't always the case. When it comes to the series' portrayal of women the pattern isn't so fantastic. Medusa is a strong character able to hold her own whether amongst the Frightful Four or the Inhumans but Crystal isn't developed too well and comes across a bit too much as a weak younger sister rather than as a being with strong powers in her own right. But it's Sue who gets it the worst. She and Reed get married in Annual #3 but her husband doesn't seem keen to spend some time on his married life, instead forever rushing back to the laboratory and getting annoyed with Sue. She in turn continues to often be portrayed as a weak defenceless thing, often cowering and needing rescued even though her powers are growing to the point that on some occasions she deploys both her forcefields and the ability to make other objects invisible with bold effect. She's also willing to risk her life but overall she still feels like she's being treated as a weak and fragile thing.

The wedding annual is one of the first big event moments in Marvel history and there are no end of guest stars and foes as Doctor Doom uses a mind control device to get almost every known villain in the Marvel universe to attack. Fortunately a lot of heroes are around, either as guests or they happen to be in the neighbourhood, and the villains are picked off one by one. The guest appearances aren't limited to superheroes either, with Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe showing up on panel in search of Millie the Model, whilst Jack Kirby and Stan Lee get turned away from the church by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Two Gun Kid makes it onto the cover. The issue is a snapshot of the wider Marvel universe after several years of intense development but as a story in its own right it feels a little too close to a checklist hiding under a weak plot with a whole succession of incidents as one or more foes show up to get taken out by a group of heroes until the Watcher gives Reed access to a device to dispatch all the foes and give them amnesia. All in all it's a rather poor celebration of the then-present Marvel universe.

Annual #4 contains a celebration of past Marvel glories with the first Silver Age appearance of the original Human Torch. But he gets revived only long enough to fight the modern Human Torch before being killed, seemingly forever (if that can happen to an android), by the Mad Thinker. On the face of it seems to have been produced to answer enquiries by the early generation of comic fans - within the story itself Ben and Reed discuss one such letter. But give that it was almost 28 years since the character's creation, was this Marvel's way of reasserting ownership? (The one thing I understand clearly about the old US copyright laws is that not much was clear, so I don't know if actual recent publication was needed for renewal at the 28 year mark.) But whatever the reason, the result is an all too inconsequential story that doesn't really give the old hero one last great adventure to go out in spectacular glory and certainly doesn't compare to the revivals of the Sub-Mariner or Captain America.

More spectacular is the Galactus storyline as the Four try to save Earth from being consumed by an all powerful being. However, as noted above, it has some problems with pacing due to being squeezed by the overrunning Inhumans storyline and also by taking Johnny off to university. But it also offers both great spectacles and close, human moments as the Silver Surfer discovers the nobility of humanity through his encounter with Alicia and opts to turn on his master. This confines him to Earth but within this volume that turns out to be more of a problem for Doctor Doom whose attempt at world domination by stealing the Surfer's powers comes to an end when he's lured into the barrier around Earth. This latter story shows the series growing in confidence as it continues to mix and match elements to create an evermore ongoing saga.

But it also maintains the smaller, personal human moments. Issue #51's "This Man... This Monster" has long been applauded for its personalised tale as an embittered scientist steals the Ben's monstrous form as part of a plan to dispose of the Four and prove himself superior, but he subsequently comes to respect Reed's selflessness and sacrifices his life to save him. After a run of dramatic big idea storylines it's good to get some smaller, more character based moments and this one works as both that and also to show the series can pace well when it needs to.

In general this volume seems a mix. It has some spectacular creations and stories, but it's let down by both the pacing and an excessive focus on the Inhumans without really integrating the Four into their adventures. The book is still experimenting with artforms and story structures but doesn't always get these right, and this is the main problem with an otherwise solid book.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Stan Goldberg 1932-2014

Artist and colourist Stan Goldberg has passed away. He was 82.

His art was prolific and mainly on the various soap opera, comedy and teen titles such as Millie the Model & spin-offs, Kathy the Teen-Age Tornado and Patsy Walker & spin-offs for Marvel and similar work for both DC and Archie Comics. His last Marvel work was co-pencilling one of the least predicted team-ups of all - The Punisher Meets Archie in 1994.

In addition he coloured many, many comics, often uncredited, and drew many covers.

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