Friday, 28 November 2014

Essential Defenders volume 3

Essential Defenders volume 3 reprints issues #31-60 and Annual #1. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, Hellcat and Valkyrie and the team entries for the Defenders and Zodiac. Most of the writing is by Steve Gerber, who also does the annual, and David Anthony Kraft with contributions Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, John Warner and Chris Claremont and back-ups by Naomi Basner and Scott Edelman. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema, who also does the annual, and Keith Giffen with other work by Dave Cockrum, Michael Golden, Carmine Infantino, George Tuska and Ed Hannigan with the back-ups by Sandy Plunkett and Juan Ortiz. Inevitably there's a separate post for some of the labels.

It's amazing that this is volume 3 of a series and yet it begins as early as issue #31 without a preceding substantial run under another title. This been mainly been down to a combination of the Giant-Sizes and the crossover with Avengers, but it has also meant that previous progress has been slow for the team. Now we get a run of thirty issues with only an annual for additional material and so the team can develop more quickly. And it's increasingly clear that the Defenders aren't really a "non-team". It's clear who's a member and who is a guest star, with Devil Slayer's arrival having some trappings of a formal initiation with welcomes and handshakes, putting lie to the idea that any hero who hangs around for even a single adventure is a Defender. There may not be a formal constitution or salary scheme - Nighthawk finds himself covering just about all expenses from damages to Power Man's fees - but there's a recognised post of leader, which changes hands in this volume, and a flow of recruits.

Of the new or returning members, Power Man has the weakest ties and soon leaves, feeling he's more of a loner and just not suited to being on a team. As he was initially called in by Jack Norriss as reinforcements to protect Nighthawk in his hospital bed from Plantman whilst the other Defenders are overwhelmed or busy elsewhere, his attachment to the team was never that strong. Devil Slayer joins right near the end and so it's not possible to see here how he will last. The new Red Guardian seems to have more staying power but is soon blackmailed into returning to the Soviet Union where she is captured and subject to experiments by the Presence who is seeking to enhance his own power with nuclear energy and has selected her to be his mate. After this she remains under Soviet custody. An interesting hero who combines a day job as a top neurosurgeon and a secret role as a street champion of the ordinary people who has taken up the identity previously used by an Avengers foe, Tania Belinsky offers some potential but falls into the same problems so many female heroes have of having her powers changed fairly early on whilst her identity isn't original. Consequently her departure isn't that big an impact on the series, especially as other women are coming to the forefront with Doctor Strange's girlfriend Clea now playing a role in several adventures and even getting her own solo story when the series briefly switches to a two story format, allowing her to defeat the sorcerer Nicodemus.

But by far the most significant new recruit is Hellcat. She actually opts to hang around with the Defenders instead of taking up a longstanding offer to join the Avengers, and offers a delightful approach to heroing. She has a light hearted, fun loving adventurous approach and talks like - well maybe not a normal person in the real world of the late 1970s but certainly much less formal than many a hero. She is a welcome addition to the team and it's already easy to see she will become one of the core Defenders in the long run. Not acknowledged at all is her past as Patsy Walker, star of multiple teen soap comics that were Marvel's answer to Archie, bar references to her ex-husband Buzz's attitudes, but that doesn't seem to matter at the moment. Appearing as clear guest stars are the likes of Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, whilst the Sub-Mariner returns but very much in guest star mode.

The first third of the volume is taken up with a length saga involving the Headmen - who have recruited a fourth member, the female Ruby Thursday with an artificial shape changing head - and Nebulon, now operating through a strange cult devoted to "Celestial Mind Control". The early issues have the pretty outlandish idea of the Headmen capturing Nighthawk and replacing his brain with that of Chondu of the Headmen in order to infiltrate the Defenders. It gets more complex when Jack Norriss's spirit is put into Nighthawk's body whilst Chondu's spirit is displaced to "Bambi", a young deer the Hulk has befriended. Whilst a disembodied brain Nighthawk relives his past and we learn about how he grew up monetarily rich but emotionally poor, sadly an all-too common combination, and see a succession of tragedies that made him the man he now is. Eventually Jack's spirit and Nighthawk's brain are restored to their own bodies, albeit with Nighthawk experiencing a crisis of awareness as he wonders just what is and isn't real, but Chondu ends up in a new composite body at the cost of "Bambi". Elsewhere Valkyrie is arrested and sent to a women's prison, with the other Defenders unaware of her fate. Inside the jail she faces bullying from other inmates, made worse by her inability to harm another woman, and a warden who tries to rape her. However she grows in popularity with other prisoners to the point that a riot starts for better conditions and her work in diffusing it helps to get her released with all charges dropped. Meanwhile Nebulon, leading a race of fish-like lizards called Luberdites, has set up the Celestial Mind Control cult to take over and "liberate" the world through advancing humanity. Amongst those drawn in are the old Marvel foes the Eel and the Porcupine. The CMC movement seeks presidential endorsement and a United Nations posting but the Headmen try to take it over for their own scheme. In the end the Defenders beat the Headmen and show Nebulon how his movement would undermine humanity's will. It's a complex story that lasts nearly a year, with the climax placed in the annual; one of the first times Marvel resorted to such a method in the superhero titles. It's also almost the last story by Steve Gerber on the series though he does one further issue with Doctor Strange's old foe Shazana reappearing; this feels like a fill-in idea being used up in a hurry.

In general Gerber's issues don't show much of his often used overt social commentary beyond the contemporary fad for cults that took an alternative mental approach, and whilst Tania's presence is used for occasional contrasts between the way things are in the United States and the Soviet Union but it's more of an aside to reinforce her outsider character rather than either propaganda about the superiority of the west or an exploration of alternatives. Instead the focus primarily on weird action, bar a brief use of a female presidential candidate as an alias for the Headmen's activities. However there's a brief scene in the annual that is set in New Delhi and the captions feel highly polemical, portraying India as a backward, illiterate and superstitious country, criticising the capital as primitive and expressing outrage that such a country can be a nuclear power. This is beyond a critic of nuclear weapons in general and feels very much a piece of American superiority pouring scorn on other countries for daring to raise themselves to a similar level of defence and independence. And nothing in these captions is remotely relevant to the story at hand.

Gerber's departure leaves one particular subplot still unexplained - the mysterious Elf with a gun who pops up at random to kill random people. And the new writers don't explain why. Instead issue #46 sees the Elf about to shoot the paper boy at the Richmond Riding Academy when suddenly a lorry thunders down the road and runs over the Elf. Consequently we're left with an unexplained and somewhat random chain of events that show that in life not everything has an explanation and instead we sometimes only get to glimpse a bigger pattern without ever knowing the reason why. It's a good little metaphor for life though it's the kind of approach that doesn't satisfy all comic readers so it remains to be seen if any later writers will instead seek to explain the Elf. All in all Gerber's run on Defenders has been solid though not spectacular and he has made the series quite distinct.

Some of the distinctiveness remains with successive writers as the threats remain a mixture of the unusual and off the wall but there are some stock ideas in use, especially in the middle of the volume when it takes some time to settle a new writer.  Egghead founds a team of existing villains called the Emissaries of Evil, including the Rhino, Solarr and the Cobalt Man, but it doesn't last and is ultimately consumed by infighting. Then Doctor Strange succumbs to the control of the Star of Capistan and assumes the villainous identity of Red Rajah. After his defeat he opts to leave the team for the time being with Nighthawk taking over as leader and the team's de facto base shifting to the Richmond Riding Academy on Long Island. Both Doctor Strange and his Sanctum Sanctorum return within this volume but it's a sign of how the series has grown strong enough to no longer rely on the good doctor and his villains as the core of the series.

Nighthawk's leadership faces a baptism of fire in another mini-epic as the villain Scorpio - actually Jake Fury, the S.H.I.E.L.D. director's brother - tries to create a new Zodiac society, this time with the other eleven as artificial lifeforms. However not all are "born" successfully and he's especially distraught at the "still birth" of Virgo. Feeling lonely, old, unachieving and depressed he opts to take his life. Suicide should always be handled carefully in media and reasons never casually given, making this downbeat ending a rather dubious move. After this we get a string of new foes in short tales, such as the Ringer, a fighter who can expand and throw constraining rings, Lunatik, a vigilante attacking people on the university campus, and a cult worshipping the demon Belathauzer. The main extended foe in this period is the aforementioned Presence. There's a guest appearance by Ms. Marvel as the Defenders go against AIM in a sequel to one of her solo adventures and it feels as though the issue was written as a potential fill-in that could be dropped into either series as and when necessary.

The other main character developments come with Valkyrie as she continues to adapt to the unfamiliar world. Jack Norriss remains devoted to her but she is increasingly unable to return the emotion and has to forcibly explain she just isn't his wife despite occupying her body. Her unfamiliarity with the world around her shows, especially during her time in prison, and on Nighthawk's suggestion that she enrol at a local university under Barbara Norriss's name, enduring the mess of bureaucracy and bringing further culture clashes whilst she proves rather bad at keeping her identity a secret. Jack proves unable to stay away, even when Nighthawk tries to buy him off, though near the end he accepts an offer to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and goes looking for the spy organisation.

The supporting cast has a few additions, including the first appearance of Kris Keating, a police lieutenant who would go on to be a recurring pain in the Spider-Man titles. (Well actually it may not be afterall but that's for another time.) Valkyrie's enrolment at university brings her into contact with fellow students "Ledge" and "Dollar Bill"; the latter is a film buff who starts hanging around the Defenders and taking over Jack Norriss's role as non-powered helper. Bill even brings along a film camera only to curse the shots he can get. Otherwise he provides a degree of comic relief.

 In general this volume shows a series that's trying hard to offer up a distinctive approach that combines seriousness, alternative looks and comedy. The problem is that a lot of it feels rather flat and just going through motions rather than really setting things on fire. Apart from Scorpio's suicide there are no moments that feel especially badly handled but something seems to be keeping the volume just a few steps above mediocre.

Essential Defenders volume 3 - creator labels

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

Friday, 21 November 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 reprints the Hulk stories from The Hulk! magazine #16 to #27. The first half is mainly written by Doug Moench with one story by Roy Thomas and another by Bruce Patterson; the latter half is a mix of Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, David Anthony Kraft, Bill Flanagan, Lora Byrne and J.M. DeMatteis. The art is mainly by Gene Colan and Ron Wilson; other stories are drawn by Mike Zeck, Herb Trimpe, Bob McLeod, John Buscema and Brent Anderson. And that means once again there's a separate labels post.

This volume has some of the most problematic reproduction of any of the later Essentials. The original magazines used a more sophisticated colouring system than the overlay method of the contemporary comics but one result is that black & white separations are now unavailable and so the material is reproduced with the original colour "burnt in" as shades of grey. This often results in a more sophisticated look compared to the regular comics of the era. Unfortunately many of the captions used a coloured background which now often appear as black text on a dark grey background and are very difficult to read without straining the eyes and/or deploying extra light. Some of the last few issues are in a better state, partially because the series reverted to black and white but also because many of the captions are white on black, but overall this volume is something of a pain to read.

The magazine series was contemporary to the later seasons of the Incredible Hulk television series and offers up a hybrid of the Hulk's screen and comic adventures. There are almost no references to the Hulk's comic supporting cast bar one retelling of the origin and instead we have a focus on Bruce Banner travelling across the United States and beyond, hunting for a cure and encountering a variety of mostly one-off characters and situations. However Banner's identity as the Hulk is public knowledge and on several occasions he is either recognised by someone who works out who he is, or else he gives his name and gets out of a tricky situation by trading upon the knowledge that he can turn into a rampaging monster.

The stories themselves are a general mix but few really stand out. A few characters pop up more than once but don't really last. The situations include a number of families with interesting internal dynamics, with the Hulk sought for a variety of purposes including treasure hunting or as the quarry in a big game safari in Africa. There's an interesting modern take on the story of Robinson Crusoe as Bruce joins a man who has opted out of society to live on a deserted island, only to see paradise end as modern day pirates chase a couple there. It also has the memorable scene of the Hulk diving into the sea to pick up the whole island and walk it to the mainland shore. Elsewhere Bruce goes to help tackle a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, with the Hulk ultimately fixing the problem. There's a convoluted tale as a politician manipulates multiple sides over a controversial dam in order to achieve a public relations triumph to propel him to the White House. Bruce tries settling down first working for a school for retarded children and then for a carnival but neither works out. There's a mess with a cult led by an old friend of Bruce's followed by a tense encounter with a paranoid family of gun obsessives then the chaos of a family of hillbillies who kidnap Bruce by accident and try to use him in convoluted dynamics relating to a daughter's suitor. There's a visit to Las Vegas where the Hulk is caught up in an organised crime feud. Nature is also a foe with one tale seeing the Hulk surviving a flooded river.

One of the few recurring characters is Dr Shiela Marks, a psychologist specialising in multiple personality syndrome (and to its credit her introduction avoids the common mistake in fictional to confuse MPS with schizophrenia). It's one of the first times that the Banner/Hulk dynamic has been expressed in psychological terms. Marks is driven by a determination to prove herself over her family's traditional expectations and professional criticism, but the first attempt to tackle the Hulk instead results in the Hulk's personality briefly controlling Banner's body and going on a rampage through New York, believing it to be a very different and far more hostile environment. She tries again in the more isolated environment of Bermuda but without direct success though she and Bruce face down the very different menace of brothers based in the underwater city of Hydropolis trying to drive humanity into living in the seas. Throughout the tales there are strong hints that she and Bruce could become an item but nothing is developed of it before a change away from having a permanent writer. Another attempt at a mental cure is made with a hypnotist that sends Bruce into a surreal fantasy but doesn't resolve the issues.

Issue #23 contains "A Very Personal Hell", the most infamous story in this run, though contrary to popular myth the scene everyone focuses upon is actually only a side incident in the story. Whilst in New York City and trying to obtain some of the latest science books with the latest research that may offer a hope of a cure, Bruce stays at a youth hostel and has a nasty encounter in the communal showers. For two very camp men try to rape him and it's clear this is not the first time they've pounced on a passing stranger. Now some of the elements of the portrayal may reflect early 1980s stereotypes that have since been forgotten (much as the story's general setting around Times Square is from an era when it had a reputation as a seedy, run-down area very different from what it is today) and so it's not easy to objectively judge what buttons this scene did and didn't press. But the two would-be rapists are classic effeminate, over the top, outrageously camp types that make their sexuality all too clear. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about a comic depicting a rape attempt as part of a generally down beat and horrific environment the lead character is enduring, and the absence of the Comics Code Authority on the magazines meant that more could be shown here than in a regular comic. And sexual assault and rape are sadly horrors that happen all too often in the real world. So the scene was probably written with the best intentions of helping to establish just what a horrible environment Bruce has found himself in. But the real problem is the lack of balance. At the time depictions of openly gay characters was almost non-existent in most media. It's true that most characters appear without anything being said about their sexual orientation and some could quite easily be gay, but that doesn't provide any balance in the slightest. Instead the only overtly gay characters depicted in not just the issue or even the series as a whole but across Marvel comics in general at the time play into stereotypes and fears about all gay men being sex obsessed and trying to rape every vaguely cute guy that comes along. It is not a defence that the attempted rape could have been a heterosexual one as there were enough portrayals of heterosexual people across the comics that such a hypothetical pair of rapists would not have been the sole representatives to appear.

It's also deeply uncomfortable that this story was written by Jim Shooter, Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief, who generally blocked depictions of gay characters in the Comics. That approach and other socially traditional restrictions have at times been defended as corporate level decisions, either due to the outlooks of the company's owners or else the nervousness of licensees who had been assured the characters used on their merchandise would not be put in situations that made the products unsellable in traditionalist areas. (And when this issue was originally published homosexual acts were still illegal in much of the United States as well as in two-thirds of the United Kingdom's legal jurisdictions.) Yes such corporate cowardice is easy to criticise when one is not personally at risk of the economic consequences but Marvel's history of pushing against the boundaries, most famously the Spider-Man drugs issues, showed that it could take a stand when there was the will to do so. And if such will wasn't forthcoming then it would have been better to depict no homosexual characters at all rather than having their total representation being a pair of predatory rapist stereotypes. It may not have been the intention to offend anyone other than rapists but the outcome was very much an offensive one.

This whole state of affairs is a pity on another level because the rest of the story is quite strong, showing a dark world of drug taking, domestic violence, depression, family break-up, disapproving relatives, child custody battles and more. Bruce very briefly finds happiness with Alice Steinfeld. However transforming to the Hulk takes Bruce away and Alice succumbs to loneliness, committing suicide. Another story in the issue, "Clothes Call", is more humorous, seeing Bruce taken in by a housewife who tries to seduce him but then her husband comes home.

Overall this is a rather inconsequential volume. There are some stories that go broader and deeper than what could be done in the Code comics of the era but this approach can backfire as happened notoriously here. And there is some delving into the very nature of what generate the Hulk years before this became a standard part of handling the character. But the run as a whole just doesn't feel especially satisfying. The decision to stand aloof from the regular comic and mirror the style of the television series is an understandable commercial move but it hasn't produced a particularly amazing set of stories that stand out for all the right reasons. This feels like an early example of over exposing a character.

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 - creator labels

Once more we have a volume with a lot of creators so here's a separate post to carry some of the labels.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 contains issues #76 to #100 plus the crossover Daredevil #178. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both Power Man and Iron Fist. The writing on the regular series consists of the end of Mary Jo Duffy's run, the start of Kurt Busiek's, a brief interlude by Denny O'Neil and individual issues by Mike W. Barr, with Chris Claremont co-plotting, and Steven Grant. The main artists are Kerry Gammill, Denys Cowan and Ernie Chan with individual issues by Rudy Nebres, Frank Miller, Mark Bright, Keith Pollard and Greg LaRocque. The Daredevil issue is both written and drawn by Frank Miller. And with so many creators a separate post for creator labels is needed.

The back cover of the volume goes so far as to trumpet a "Special guest appearance by Elektra: Assassin!" but it's something of a false colour as she only appears in a subplot in the Daredevil issue and doesn't interact with Power Man or Iron Fist. Was this simply a copywriter picking from a list of characters without actually reading the issues or was it someone deciding they had a tough sell on their hands and so threw in any sales hook no matter how remote? Because this volume is relatively tame. There aren't any spectacular developments for either of the main characters and few long running subplots. Instead this volume covers a period of largely run of the mill adventures.

The main exceptions come towards the end of the volume. There's a recurring theme of Power Man encountering ever more hostility in the Times Square area near his own office and apartment above the cinema. (When this series was originally published, Times Square had a very different reputation from today.) More and more people accuse him of being a sell out or an "Oreo" - brown on the outside but white on the inside - to the point that when the latest criminal to take on the mantel of Chemistro seeks to set himself up as a hero protecting the criminals, many locals side with him, especially in crowds watching his fights with Power Man. This leads to Power Man deciding to leave the area altogether, going so far as to move all his possessions out and saying his goodbyes. However on his final look around the area he comes across a gang of thugs mugging an old woman, believing the area to be safe for crime now that Power Man has gone. This causes him to reassess his plans and stay put to protect the ordinary folk on the street. The subplot also contrasts the different outlooks between his former girlfriend Claire Temple, now appearing on a regular basis as the hospital doctor who seems to handle every medical requirement going, and current girlfriend Harmony Young, a model. Claire's outlook is down to earth and focused on the needs of the ordinary people whilst Harmony seeks glamour and is obsessed with her appearance. Harmony starts flat-sharing with Misty Knight, and generating tension over everything from being in the communal areas at the wrong moments to criticising and rearranging Misty's wardrobe. This latter theme is soon forgotten amidst the turnover of writers. At one point Harmony is mistaken for Misty by Sabretooth, seeking revenge for a defeat earlier in the volume, and left with a badly slashed face, opening up the possibility that she will have to face a changed life and struggle with the loss of her career. However all is rapidly restored to normal by plastic surgeons just as we get to a change of writers. More durable across writers is the underlying tension about whether Luke and Claire will get back together, with Dr Burnstein even trying to matchmake them, and Harmony getting jealous of how often Luke is meeting Claire seemingly in the course of work.

Of the three regular writers on this volume we have one in the latter stages of their most prominent series, another starting out before they were famous and one of the biggest name writers of the Bronze Age of Comics. Unfortunately this volume is another example of how even some of the most acclaimed writers can fail to set a series on fire with Denny O'Neil's run seeing the series veer away from the gritty yet light hearted mainly New York based fun under Mary Jo Duffy and instead become much more generic, taking the Heroes for Hire out of the city on assignments such as stopping supply lorries being stolen by the Mole Man or attempts on the life of a musician. The series soon comes back to New York for a forgettable team-up with Moon Knight's supporting crew, while the hero himself spends almost the entire issue trapped in an overheated empty water tank, or an unsubtle tale about the drug acid, or an encounter with military mercenaries. It just feels run of the mill and it's a relief that this run is over so soon. The replacement shows more promise quickly. It's a surprise to discover Kurt Busiek's name on this volume, from over a decade before his breakout with series such as Marvels and Thunderbolts. His work here lacks the perspective of looking at how people react to living in a world of heroes and there isn't much sign of the deep level continuity that makes use of many an obscure back issue, though he does get a strong grasp on the series's own continuity and brings together a number of disparate characters. The last few issues of the volume see a multi-part storyline that brings back old foes of both heroes such as Master Khan, Ward Meachum, Shades and Comanche, adds in a new foe in the form of the wolf woman Fera, and makes Iron Fist face the loss of his soul. It's a strong tale that serves to wrap up some of the outstanding threads though it's disappointing to again have the anniversary issue taken up with a K'un-Lun derived storyline. Still it shows a good handling of the mythology that has been built up by both characters' solo series and then this combined one.

The Daredevil crossover seems to have been to promote this series, with an advert reproduced that trumpets Ol' Hornhead visiting. The tale as a whole starts out serious in the pages of Daredevil but veers off into comedy as the Heroes for Hire get commissioned to protect Matt Murdock who finds them a nuisance and distraction. It leads into an oddball tale set around a theatre as all three heroes try to secure the career of a young dancer amidst a web of petty rivalries and international espionage, leading to a slapstick chase in the middle of a live performance. Another source of comedy comes in issue #79. Bob Diamond has been in a play performing "Professor Gamble", a time-travelling scientist who battles the robotic "Dredlox". Even the play is called "The Day of the Dredlox". The homage is all too clear to me but I wonder just how well Doctor Who and the Daleks were known about by the mainstream US comics audience in 1982. And then we discover that the characters in the play are more than fiction-within-fiction.

The humour sits alongside some more serious moments such as the return of Warhawk on a crusade against all people of Oriental origin, blaming them all for what happened to him in Vietnam, or a trip to the north African country of Halwan where tensions are building with its neighbours. Other foes are more down to Earth, such as an appearance by Unus the Untouchable who is focusing just on petty crime to raise funds, having realised that the authorities are ignoring such low scale matters (in another sign of the times as this was about a decade before Rudy Giuliani heralded a new approach to crime). Later they prevent a jailbreak by Hammerhead with help from the Maggia including Man Mountain Marko and a new Eel. The series continues its mix of big and small scale villains, with various spies thrown in for good measure, serving clients, helping those who can't afford their services for nothing or a nominal fee (one boy gets help for just 25c) and facing down a variety of old foes. Throughout the later stages Power Man's friend D.W. Griffith starts filming their exploits for a documentary, though when he captures on film Ward Meachum hiring Shades and Comanche it leads to Griffith's being kidnapped.

Overall this run manages to maintain a broad family feel to the title, with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing both regularly appearing in both action and personal roles. Many issues end with one or both of the Heroes for Hire going for pizza, predating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' obsession, and overall it's clear just how strong the bonds are between the various odd couples that it's credible they would put their lives on the line for one another. The artwork is generally quite good but one irritation is the way certain female character's hairstyles keep changing to the point that it can be difficult to recognise them on first sight. Misty Knight, Harmony Young and Claire Temple all exhibit this trait and the script doesn't always immediately identify them on first appearance. Still it's only a minor niggle.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries are a nice addition that often help fill out the end pages of a volume. However they have a tendency to give away details of major storylines that haven't appeared by the end of the particular volume. Whilst Power Man's entry is from the Deluxe Edition, contemporary to issue #125, Iron Fist was strangely absent from that edition altogether (he should have appeared in issue #5, contemporary to Power Man and Iron Fist #123) and so his entry is from the later Update '89.

This volume is steady but not spectacular. Most of it follows a formula of mixing an odd couple, street level grittiness and some tongue in cheek fun in a good blend but without producing any particular star-shining moments. Approximately the middle of the volume shows the series going off the rails under a new writer without a decent grasp on the title but fortunately this doesn't last long. The last part shows the earliest work by a future star writer and though it may lack many of his hallmarks it nonetheless holds up reasonably well. This series has dated in some surprising ways in its portrayal of New York but overall it remains solid stuff. There may not be any particular standouts but collectively the series still holds its own and broadly the volume is pretty good.

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 - creator labels

We have yet another volume with lots of creators so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 2

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains issues #22-46 of the original Captain Marvel series plus Iron Man #55 and Marvel Feature #12. Issue #36 is a reprint with a framing sequence that is included here. The Iron Man issue is a prologue to a storyline in the main series whilst the Marvel Feature issue ties in with that and is also part of the try-out for Marvel Two-in-One. Bonus material includes a map of Titan from issue #27 plus the covers, pin-ups and extra pages from the reprint series The Life of Captain Marvel. The writing on the main series is primarily by Mike Friedrich, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart either solo or in various combinations with Al Milgrom co-plotting some issues and a few by Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. The art is mainly by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and Wayne Boring with an individual issue by Alfredo Alcala. Friedrich and Starlin also co-produce both the Iron Man and Marvel Feature issues.

Although the numbering begun in 1968 is continued, this volume represents the third attempt to launch an ongoing Captain Marvel title in less than five years. Once again this perseverance is almost certainly down to a desire to maintain the trademark at a time when DC had obtained the licence for the Fawcett Captain Marvel and would soon relaunch him on the world in his own title. US trademark law is big on the "use it or lose it" principle so Marvel Comics couldn't just rely on a registration but had to actively use the mark "Captain Marvel" in order to prevent others using it. This shows in the first few issues as we get a fairly generic superhero series with the only real twist being Rick Jones increasingly resenting sharing his physical space with Mar-Vell and resisting transformation no matter how dire the situation. The villains consist of Megaton the Nuclear Man and Dr Mynde, both men affected by radiation. Megaton has mutated into a solid form but is set to explode whilst Mynde is an ambitious scientist whose body succumbed to radiation poisoned so he transplanted his head onto a robotic body. Neither foe is terribly exciting and both die at the end of their first encounter. There's yet another change to Captain Marvel's set-up as his powers are altered so he is now reliant on solar energy for his powers and is noticeably weaker at night. A supporting cast is grown in the form of musician Lou-Anne Savannah and her uncle scientist Benjamin but all in all this is a series still searching for a purpose beyond trademark protection.

On first encounter Iron Man #55 seems an odd choice for inclusion as it doesn't feature Captain Marvel or any of the characters from his series. Instead we get the introduction of a new villain and his opponent. But that villain is Thanos and the opponent Drax the Destroyer, with the issue serving as a prologue to the best known storyline in this volume. Over no less than nine issues, with bimonthly publication making it last eighteen months, we get an extended tale of Captain Marvel's battle with Thanos, establish the Titan as one of the mega-villains of the Marvel universe. The epic spread beyond the pages of Captain Marvel itself, with Iron Man teaming up with the Thing to battle Thanos's minions the Blood Brothers in Marvel Feature #12, Moondragon being aided by Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own series and the Avengers taking on Thanos's armed forces in their series. Only the Marvel Feature issue is included but it isn't very critical to the ongoing plot and doesn't justify its presence here whilst other tie-in issues are ignored. I suspect the reason is that this inclusion/exclusion pattern appears to have been followed by all the reprints of the storyline going right back to the mid 1980s series The Life of Captain Marvel.

This storyline presents with a truly cosmic epic with a well developed backstory and characters. Over the course of these issues Captain Marvel battles first with Thanos's recruits such as the Super Skrull and the Controller, before eventually taking on the Titan himself. We get a broad scope reminiscent of Greek epics as we learn the history of the civilisation on Titan from its founding by A'Lars, brother of Zeus, under the name of Mentor, through to Thanos's rise, recruitment of an army and conquest of the moon and then sweeping outwards. We learn of how steps have been taken to stop them but they are not enough. And we see the effects as Thanos turns his attention to Earth in pursuit of the Cosmic Cube to further his ends. The Cube offers immense power but its ramifications aren't explored too much beyond a notable 35 panel page in which Drax is subjected to a reality warping experience. Captain Marvel steadily steps up to the point where his heroism allows him to triumph.

We get many new characters who have gone on to perform significant roles through the Marvel Universe and beyond into the films. There's Thanos himself, his brother Eros (later to use the alias "Starfox"), their father Mentor, Isaac the super-computer and Drax the Destroyer. Each is carefully sketched out as a distinctive being who advances the story in their own way. And there are the more cosmic entities. The mighty Kronos is introduced though like Eros he bears limited resemblance to the character from Greek mythology. From afar he has created Drax the Destroyer out of Moondragon's dead father. Even more mysterious is Eon, a blob that appears to be a hybrid of two separate entities and which summons Mar-Vell to transform him from soldier to cosmic protector. And then there's Death, a silent skeletal female figure in a robe who appears at Thanos's side. There are some status quo changes as well, with Benjamin Savannah killed off at the start but more substantial is Mar-Vell's transformation under the guidance of Eon. Now an even more powerful cosmic being with "cosmic awareness" of what is happening in the universe he bursts forward with a new light stream tail of photon energy. Unfortunately the other main visual change is his hair turning from silver to blond, a change that is impossible to notice in a black and white reprint. And it's my main irritation with an otherwise fantastic storyline that we get yet another change in the main character's powers. It seems it may be impossible for any intellectual property protection to resist constant tinkering.

Issue #34 is probably the best known single issue in this volume, featuring Captain Marvel taking on new villain Nitro to stop him stealing an experimental nerve gas with consequences that would be returned to in later years. Nitro is a villain with an interesting power, that of being able to blow himself up and then reconstitute himself. I suspect that in the 1970s it was possible to present a living bomb as a character without the wider connotations of suicide bombers (and it still was over a decade later when one of the last of the original Masters of the Universe toys was Blast-Attak, with very much the same character basis) but nowadays it would be much more daring to create such a being.

Also a sign of the times is the drug use on the music scene. Rick's new singing partner Rachel "Dandy" Dandridge gives him a capsule that she jokingly claims contains "Vitamin C". When Rick takes it in the Negative Zone, it causes him to hallucinate and through the mind link it also affects Captain Marvel. However this affects a process whereby their minds have been converging. Rick has previously discovered the ability to control Mar-Vell's body when the latter is unconscious and the two are finding themselves ever more drawn together with the implication they may be merging. The drug taking seems to have the effect of empowering them to ultimately separate and merge at their own choosing. Again it's highly doubtful such a cause would be used today. Equally brushed over more than would be the case today is a scene where, in a brief guest appearance, the Wasp tampers with the Living Laser's equipment resulting in his weaponry killing him. Some of these ideas were clearly slipping past during one of Marvel editorial's most turbulent periods.

However out of that turbulence comes another epic as Captain Marvel battles elements of the Kree across multiple worlds, culminating in a showdown on the Kree homeworld with the Supreme Intelligence who has been manipulating things all along. During the course of the epic Mar-Vell and Rick briefly go their separate ways but reunite after Rick discovers his music act is out of touch with modern audience expectations. Both men find their powers developing thanks to the Nega bands with each learning from the other about how to use the powers in new and imaginative ways. The two are finally separated but able to reunite when needs be, allowing them to more easily travel through space and enhance their fighting skills. Towards the end their minds are on the brink of merger, resulting in a showdown to re-establish their separate egos. Against this personal conflict comes an array of adventures, ranging from confrontations on Earth with agents of the "Lunatic Legion" such as Nitro and the Living Laser to a showdown on the Moon with the Legion revealed as blue Kree racists led by old foe Zarek in search of purity. There's a trip to the Watcher's homeworld, battles with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and a more personalised conflict with a creature possessing the body of Una, Mar-Vell's former romantic interest. A more whimsical tale takes Mar-Vell and Rick to a plant very like the American Old West where they have a showdown with the Stranger - but all is not what it seems. There's a return appearance by an angry Destroyer, now angry that his purpose in life has been destroyed by Captain Marvel. Then there's a world with a war between cyborgs and giant Kree robots called Null-trons, before the climax with the Supreme Intelligence. The later parts see first Rick and then Mar-Vell aided by a mysterious woman known only as Fawn, a manifestation of Rick's mental powers. This is a story with a big vision and scope, providing one of the earliest intergalactic Marvel epics, but it's also a quite personal tale about the relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick, showing how intertwined the two are and how each benefits the other.

Overall this volume shows some of the telltale signs of the character's origin as a trademark protection, with continuing changes to the powers and status quo, but by the second half of the volume it feels like actual character development rather than an endless search to find something that will work to keep the trademark in use. But beyond that there's finally a clear long-term idea as to what this series is about and it survives a change of writer. Rather than an alien operating amongst humans or a detached observer of humanity we get a strong series on a cosmic scale, with a mixture of menaces that threaten the whole universe and those that focus upon Marvel himself. The Thanos epic is the peak of the volume, even with the needless inclusion of the Marvel Feature issue, and shows a self-confidence that had been lacking for years. After that there are some questionable moments where the series shows its age with accidental killing of villains without consequences, drug taking and suicide bombers all being elements that would be unlikely to appear today. Whilst the second epic may ramble a little overall it still has breadth and imagination, putting the characters through a critical personal journey. The result is a series finally on the up and more than justifying its existence to its readers rather than just intellectual property lawyers. This volume is definitely the series at its highest so far.
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