Friday, 25 December 2015

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug

For another special look...

Wait! Don't start without me!!

Oh. Hello Ambush Bug.

Hey isn't this a Marvel focused site? What am I doing here?

From time to time I take a look at some of DC's output. It makes for an interesting contrast. And after doing a couple of team-up volumes it was time for something a bit different.

You mean there isn't a team-up title focused on Wonder Woman. But hey, I got her for my cover.

Yes, quite an achievement. Anyway shall we press on?

Sure. I want to know what you think about my adventures.

Well here goes. So today I'm going to have a look at Showcase Presents Ambush Bug.

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug? What, no volume number?

No. I guess someone saw that question coming. The back cover even declares "...his one and - we promise - only Showcase Presents volume."

"Only"? "Only"? "ONLY'"! Where's Mackiewicz? I want words!

Who's Mackiewicz?

Don't you ever read the credits page on these things?

Oh yeah. Sean Mackiewicz, the "Editor-collected edition".

That's an odd title. "Editor-collected"?!

I guess he's not the typesetter. But he's not here to explain so shall we get on with this?

Oh very well.

Okay first off the contents list.

Do we have to?

Yes - if I'm going to talk about it, it helps to know what's in it.

Okay, just get on with it.

I'm trying. But we've wandered a long way from the cover so as a reminder here it is again, and this time it's bigger.

Look how I turned those heroes green. That didn't happen on the original cover. The printers mucked it up.

It's strange to be talking about colour correction on a black and white reprint. But shall we just get on with it?

Go ahead, I'm not stopping you. 

Really? No on second thoughts let's not have that argument and so here goes... It's the Ambush Bug stories from DC Comics Presents #52, #59 & #81, Supergirl #16, Action Comics #560, #563 & #565, Ambush Bug #1 to #4, Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer, Son of Ambush Bug #1 to #6, Secret Origins #48 and Ambush Bug Nothing Special.

All those limited series and specials. Those were great days.

And those team-ups. I first encountered you when some of the DC Comics Presents issues were reprinted in the UK Superman title back in the early 1990s.

Wait a minute! I had British reprints?! Nobody told me! Where are my royalties? Who published this series?

From memory at the time of the first one they were still called London Editions Magazines but they soon changed the name to Fleetway Editions after a merger. They were an imprint of EgmontUK. I don't know if you were entitled to overseas royalties.

So who do I have to talk to?

Erm... I'm not sure, but it might be a problem at DC's end rather than LEM's. Have a chat with their overseas reprint department. Otherwise former LEM editor Martin Gray is online. But don't tell any of them I sent you.

So what do I say if they ask how I found out about these?

Isn't Google a wonderful thing? Anyway let's get on with the credits.

Do we have to?

Yes. The creative talent deserves to be acknowledged. Anyway the main creative force on this volume is your creator Keith Giffen who plots and pencils nearly everything, with Robert Loren Fleming doing the scripting.

You mean Robert transcribes my words.

Erm... let's not have this argument now. There's some other folk to acknowledge as well. Except where mentioned, it's Keith and/or Robert on everything. Your first appearance in DC Comics Presents is written by Paul Kupperberg and your second is scripted by Paul Levitz. The Supergirl issue is written by Paul and drawn by Carmine Infantino. There's a brief sequence during Son of Ambush Bug drawn by Steve Bissette whilst Keith replaces the pencil you broke.

Do you have to remind me?

Moving onwards. Finally some extra pencilling on Ambush Bug Nothing Special is by Chris Sprouse and Bill Wray.

I know you don't normally do this but can we give Bob a shout out?

Sure why not? Nearly everything is inked by Bob Oksner.

Bob, what a guy. And sadly no longer with us.

It's amazing how often the Keith-Robert-Bob team appears given how many years these stories were produced over.

I got lucky and largely left to my own creator. I guess Keith was able to call the whole team together whenever he wanted.

It's nice when that happens and can allow for consistent presentation. Which brings me onto the first thing I noticed.

Oh heck, I know where this is going.

Yes your first appearance. You're a bit different from what you've since become.

Hey lots of characters have an inauspicious beginning. You wouldn't judge them solely on their first outings now would you?

Did they begin their careers as murderers?

Some did.



It's no good looking around. There isn't a copy of Who's Who in the vicinity. Or a Marvel Handbook. There's a reason I chose this venue for this.

I was beginning to wonder.

Don't keep changing the subject. You started off as a clear villain, if a somewhat bonkers and frustrating one. Yet somehow your villainous side got forgotten and you instead became a generic pest.

It happens to some of the best of us - look at the Joker's early years. Or Catwoman's redemption. I just took it one step further.

Yeah your second appearance is different. A reprint of it was when I first saw you, nearly twenty-five years ago now. And I just have to ask: The Legion of Substitute Heroes. Why? Why? WHY?

The Legion of Super-Heroes were unavailable that day. And I've never worked out which day it was. You know what DC team-up comics are like when it comes to continuity.

Yes but the Legion of Substitute Heroes?! Was Superman trying to help you?

Come again?

I mean tying you to a lamppost or just telling you to stay put would have been a safer bet than entrusting you to the Legion of Substitute Heroes.

Aww come on. They're not the worst group ever. What about their Auxiliary? You know, the heroes who weren't quite ready for membership in the Substitute Heroes yet!

Not... ready... for... membership... in... the... Substitute... Heroes...

You have got to stop lifting dialogue and reusing it without properly quoting it.

You started it.

No I didn't.

Oh yes you did.

Oh no I didn't.

Oh yes you did.

Oh no I didn't.

Oh yes you did.

Oh no I didn't.

What is this, pantomime?

What is this pantomime?

You don't know?

Not really.

Erm... erm... erm... Shall we just go with "it's one of those British things that we just can't find a way to clearly explain to Americans"? Like cricket. And it's appropriate for this time of year.

And they say I'm the mad one.

Anyway, back to the stories and here's the cover again. Now we have this slapstick adventure and I guess that's what moved you into full wacky mode. And it's had slightly more reprints than your first appearance so clearly that image stuck.

Hey I'm not complaining.

And then the silliness increases when you encountered Supergirl - who you thought was Superman?!

How was I to know there was more than one sole survivor of Krypton? That doesn't make much sense.

Thank you John Byrne.

Please don't swear.

But despite not being able to tell the Supercousins apart you were able to deduce their identities.

One of them thinks a pair of glasses is a disguise. The other thinks a wig is. The only question is which is the more absurd disguise.

Or maybe you had inside information? We never actually see the point at which you gained awareness of your fictional status. Instead it just pops up as side comments in some short pieces in Action Comics which otherwise start satirising everything from Superman's origin to Spider-Man's two new costumes in 1984.

Hey it wasn't all satire. I got enhanced powers and the ability to teleport anywhere without relying on my little bugs.

Whoever had that idea must have quickly regretted it.

I've used it for good. Heck I even used it to take on Batmite.

Oh that was actually you in the cartoon and not some non-canonical alternate depiction?

Who do you think you're talking to? A DC Comics character?


Haven't you got anything further to say?

Oh yes, quite a bit. You didn't dive straight into satire though - your final DC Comics Presents appearance was a classic chaotic Superman story even if you and Kobra did know where you where.

Kobra? Who was Kobra?

The evil mastermind in the story.

I though that was Lex Luthor.

Not every bald evil genius in a Superman story is Lex Luthor.

You live and learn.

And then you got your own limited series after just a few years.

Woohoo! It's great isn't it?

It's... bizarre. It's not a coherent tale but rather a collection of random ramblings about comics and other bits and pieces, with a lot of the humour coming from highlighting the silliness of Silver Age DC comics.

I wanted to do something more substantial but first Cheeks got killed off then business was slow then Jonni DC came to try and sort out the continuity then...

Enough already! It's really turning into a satirical commentary on the comics industry rather than the adventures of one of its wackier characters.

Hey don't blame me! I wanted an all-star extravaganza but all the stars said no. And then Keith and Robert (I can't call him "Bob", that's too confusing here) decided to try something different.

How did they get the idea past Julius Schwartz?

Julie went to his grave wondering the same thing.

I guess editors don't always set direction.

No, indeed.

But here's the problem I have. Just what's the point of wasting limited space with such digs at old material? Surely it would have been better to focus on critiquing the modern direction of the industry?

You have to start somewhere and build up. Who was going to go into battle about Ace the Bathound or the Flash's true origin?

Indeed. But it's still not the most substantial is it? Anyway, next we have Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer.

Don't open it before Christmas Day!

Erm it is Christmas Day.

Oh yeah.

Although what a zombie story has to do with Christmas is beyond me.

I like breaking conventions. And how else was I to get Cheeks back?

And also trying to refight the Vietnam War and take on Hukka. I had to look him up. Just what was Atari Force?

I couldn't understand either and I was there.

And that cliffhanger. Did you go to the actual Arkham Asylum class reunion?

What do you think I am, mad?

Well the Joker thought so.

There's a reason Batman always beats him.

Indeed. So instead you just did a puppet show. Now this next limited series came out in 1986. Is it pre Crisis or post Crisis?

Crisis? What Crisis?

You mean you transcend even different incarnations of the DC Multiverse?

I'm Ambush Bug. Need I say I any more?

Well I'm hoping so otherwise I'll have to fill the rest of this post by myself.

Okay I'll help.

You may regret that.

How so?

To be absolutely blunt, neither of your limited series really excites me. They're both rather incoherent, veering off all over the place and making a lot of the same jokes that get repetitive after a while.

Well they weren't intended to be read all at the same time.

True but the logical conclusion to that line of argument is that they should never have been collected together in this edition at all. And where would you get your royalties?

I don't get any. Should I?

Maybe a trip to the DC reprint office to sort this all out? But they'll be closed today so anyway these two limited series plus the Stocking Stuffer were all released in a period of just eighteen months so the jokes would have been only slightly less repetitive at the time.

Don't you like them at all?

Oh there are some good individual moments - Argh!yle! is especially funny as is the decision to correct his omission from Who's Who? But the vague general narratives of dealing with the Interferer, dying, coming back to life, going on trial, trying to get your super-villain licence back and the return (again) of Cheeks all keep getting lost under a whole string of not too funny moments that are either saying the same old things again and again (and again...) or making obscure cultural references that are both dated and geographically locked.

Well it was published in another country. And unlike Marvel it didn't even pretend to be global with some foreign prices printed on the cover.

Not true - DC did two cover variants in this era, presumably newstand and direct market versions. The one not used in this volume has Canadian and British prices on it. And more recently the back cover of the Showcase Presents edition has a Canadian price on it.

But no English one?

British. The adjective is "British"!

Is that a touchy subject?

Yes. We don't call the US "Texas" do we? Or Canada "Ontario"? So why do Americans consistently fail to call my country by its name? The scene setting captions in your adventures are just as bad.

Is it even worth arguing with you about this one?

Quite simply no.

Okay then...

Let's move onwards. But wait - how did you get away with Mitsu Bishi?

I never could understand. The lawyer mumbled something about intellectual property, parody, different spheres and then I screamed "ENOUGH!!!" and paid her there and then. She was charging by the minute. By the minute! BY THE MINUTE!!

Disgraceful isn't it? But surely DC were covering your expenses?

I have a feeling I'm going to have to go to an awful lot of offices once this is over.

They'll all be closed today. And tomorrow. And the next day.

Will they ever open?

Do you have a substitute Bank Holiday for Boxing Day?

Boxing Day? What's that?

The day after Christmas Day. It's full of traditions up to and including chaos in the sales.

We do that on Black Friday. Do you know it?

The day after Thanksgiving?

Yeah that's it.

Yeah we have it too. Despite not having Thanksgiving.

That's ridiculous!

I know. But the retail industry often makes silly decisions.

It's the same in the States.

How did this all begin?

There are many different stories. It's a multiple choice origin.

Like yours.

I'm one of the few characters to have agreed to do Secret Origins who actually realised what the title means.

It's handy. And somehow you managed to duck out of the National Bureau of Origins's attempts to extract it.

It helped that Keith had been a bit busy at the time. Have you ever read Invasion?

Only the Justice League International tie-ins. Fleetway Editions felt that running the main story would take far too long when Superman and the Justice League was bimonthly. It would also have meant there wasn't room to reprint one of your earlier adventures in the final issue before a relaunch.

Couldn't you have gone to your local comic shop?

We only briefly had one in Epsom and it was around that time it got hit in an arson attack.

An arson attack on a comic shop? Are you kidding me?

No, but as this was in 1992 it's hard to find details on the internet - the local paper doesn't have all its old stories online. But it was called Trojan Comics so keep an eye out with Google from time to time.

Okay I'll have to take your word for it. Did it ever return?

I'm not too sure - there was another a year later but it was above another shop and I can't remember its name or if it was the same people. And it seemed to be out of date compared to other comic shops - looking back I suspect that by the time I found the shop it had fallen in debt to the distributor who had retaliated with delayed shipments. It folded after a few months.

Gee that's too bad. How did you keep up with comics?

I was lucky enough to have a rail season ticket that allowed me access to the whole of London and so could access other shops there. But anyway we have one final issue in this volume - Ambush Bug Nothing Special.

It's horrible the way the legal information fuses the title into that.

I believe you wanted it to be an annual?

Yes - but it would have to have been part of the "Eclipso" crossover that ran in them all.

Amazing that DC kept trying with that format years after Marvel abandoned it. And you even tried to have a crossover issue as well.

Only to get Brownouto, Eclipso's third cousin twice removed. I ask you, is that any way to treat the star?

But your real enemy was elsewhere. And I don't mean Argh!yle!

No it was always Julie. A man who would defy even death to hold his position forever.

Sounds like Kim Il-sung.

Come again?

North Korea's head of state is the Eternal President of the Republic, Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current day to day leader Kim Jong-un.

So the head of state is a dead guy?!

Yeah - he's sort of President for After-Life.

Now I get it. Yeah Julie was always the ultimate problem but I did my best.

I particularly liked the sequence where you had ridiculous muscles, physically impossible poses and no coherent dialogue whatsoever. Now I wonder what that could have been parodying?

I wonder!

But overall it was a bit of the same old, even if a single special meant all the effort had to be focused on just the one issue. I guess my problem is that if I want rambling incoherent narratives I'll look to old Image comics.

Well I did the best I could. But I guess your tastes weren't for it.

Maybe. But you did still have some nice moments. For instance at the very end of the book we get a special feature - a "Where's Irwin?" doublepage in the style of Where's Wally?

You mean Where's Waldo? What's all this Wally stuff?

That's his original name in his original market.

Who's bright idea was that?

Wally? His creator's? Waldo? His North American publishers.

Why can't they leave things the way they are?

I know. But it happens on both sides of the Atlantic and the consumers rarely get a say. You were lucky - in different circumstances you could have been renamed!

Me?! But Ambush Bug is an amazing name! I'm named after an insect. Why would anyone want to rename me?

Because the ambush bug insects (called Phymatidae or Phymatinae by those who understand classification naming and can explain what those different spellings mean) aren't native over here so a lot of the joke is lost on a British audience.

A pity but hey it hasn't stopped my fan club growing.

No - and I see I'm an honorary member thanks to this book.

We wanted to offer more than any other book delivers.

And it works. Let's see that cover just one more time - and it's even bigger than ever. It's interesting to see your evolution from villain to extraordinary pest to commentator. I guess I was just expecting much more of your pest era as that's all I saw of you all those years ago.

The curse of limited foreign reprints.

Yeah. Still it wasn't the end even if Batmite did declare you "a pretty obscure hero even for this show" when you turned up on Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

What would he know in his own dimension?! I may not have saved the show but I helped save the people of Gotham from being turned to bananas, got Batman to reassert his core identity, made a Scrappy disappear, organised a great party, talked to Ted McGinley and had the most appropriate voice artist ever to fight jumping the shark - Henry Winkler.

How many of the show's target audience even got that joke?

Who cares? The episode was for the fanboys!

And your greatest moment.

Thank you.

I notice your speech style is different across appearances.

It's multiple choice, like so much else about me.

Ambush Bug - A character for all circumstances. And a great sport for coming to contribute to this even when I wasn't always the biggest fan.

It's good to get multiple perspectives.

Indeed. Thank you for this.

Thank you.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Here's the cover to the 1975 (released 1974) Marvel Treasury Edition special Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag reprinting a number of stories, some with a Christmas element, some without, featuring the heroes on the cover, hence the selection.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A single X-Men preview

As is standard when I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and/or character, it's time to take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the X-Men there's just one further issue.

Uncanny X-Men #332 written by Scott Lobdell and drawn by Joe Madureira, reprinted in Essential Wolverine volume 5

Wolverine is heavily degenerating into a feral state following an encounter with Genesis and the X-Men are now trying to track him down. Professor X tries to get information from Zoe Culloden at Landau, Luckman and Lake and then a team of X-Men located Wolverine at the underground base of Ozymandias, a long lived follower turned foe of Apocalypse who unleashes living stone statues on them.

This issue ties in with a long-running plotline in Wolverine's own title and serves as the first half of a mini-crossover whilst also introducing Ozymandias, seemingly as part of the build-up to the return of Apocalypse. In isolation it suffers from the all-too common problem of many issues in this era that take storylines from one title and rather arbitrarily continue developing them in another without any decent build-up or full-scale explanation. As a result, the series become too much driven by the overall franchise than is healthy, thus making them harder to follow in isolation. The issue itself is so-so with some good little character moments, such as a nice conversation between Iceman and Cannonball about making mistakes including the classic line about the Champions ""Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a major super-villain in Los Angeles?" But ultimately this is really a continuation of Wolverine's story that makes use of the pages of another title rather than a justified crossover.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Essential X-Men volume 11

Essential X-Men volume 11 comprises Uncanny X-Men #273 to #280 & Annual #15 and the second "adjectiveless" X-Men #1 to #3 plus X-Factor #69 to #70 and the lead story from Annual #6, the lead story from New Mutants Annual #7 and the lead story from New Warriors Annual #1. Bonus material includes some sketches and prints by Jim Lee. The writing on Uncanny X-Men sees the end of Chris Claremont's lengthy run with Fabian Nicieza taking over at the end and writing some of the annual stories with the rest by Len Kaminski. The "adjectiveless" X-Men issues are co-written by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee. The X-Factor issues are written by Fabian Nicieza and Peter David with the annual by Nicieza who also does the New Mutants and New Warriors annuals. The art on Uncanny X-Men is mainly by Jim Lee with individual issues by Paul Smith, Andy Kubert and Steve Butler and the annual by Tom Raney, Jerry DeCaire, Ernie Stiner and Kirk Jarvinen. One regular issue is drawn by Whilce Portacio, Klaus Janson, John Byrne, Rick Leonardi, Marc Silvestri, Michael Golden, Jim Lee and Larry Stroman. The "adjectiveless" X-Men issues are all drawn by Jim Lee. The regular X-Factor issues are drawn by Portacio and Jarvinem and the annual by Terry Shoemaker. The New Mutants annual is drawn by Guang Yap and Kirk Jarvinem and the New Warriors annual by Mark Bagley. And invariably there's a separate labels post.

This volume covers the end of Chris Claremont's original run on the title after no less than sixteen years. And it's something of a damp squib as his last issues show heavy signs of creative conflict, culminating in his departure midway through issue #279. The first big sign in this volume is issue #274, which feels slightly odd, being more heavily scripted than a usual issue in devoting plenty of space to exploring Magneto's inner thoughts. It seems to be almost a struggle for control of the title between scripter and artist - and notably Jim Lee is given full plot credit with Chris Claremont relegated to "Script" whereas the other issues either credit the two of them as jointly producing the title or (more usually with guest pencillers) give Claremont a clear credit as "Writer". As is now well known, Claremont found himself in creative battles with both Lee and also editor Bob Harras over the content and direction of the title, and ultimately Harras had the final say. This issue feels like one of the reported ones where the first Claremont knew of the content was when finished pages of art arrived for scripting and the heavy dialogue and thought captions feel like a natural response to this. Claremont drops out dramatically midway through issue #279 and his name is also completely absent from annual #15 (released on the very same day, according to Mike's Amazing World of Comics).

Much of the conflict feels like a battle between Claremont to continue advancing the storyline in a unique direction and just about all the other creative forces trying to recreate the past, both in revisiting multiple classic storylines and situations but also in trying to bring classic elements back, most notably by bringing all five of the original X-Men back onto the team as well as bringing Professor X back to Earth and crippling him once more. Along the way, there are some new developments and the culmination of the longstanding plots surrounding Muir Island. But there's also a lot of repetition that shows the extent to which the battle is being won by the traditionalist approach. And this fails to grasp that for better or for worse Claremont's Uncanny X-Men was never a title that stood still for long, regularly changing the cast and status quo and not stopping to wallow in nostalgia. As a result we get a move towards a false ideal that tries to preserve the Claremont style at the cost of Claremont himself. It's a very unsatisfactory approach all around.

En route to this we get the trademarks of an introspective issue as the team, now fully reformed, tries to decide on its future direction and the roles of its spin-off; this is also notable for the whole team adopting the standardised uniforms that have been used by the Muir Island X-Men. They may not be the original 1960s look but they have the same colours and represent one of the biggest visual steps back towards a mythical golden age of status quo. Then comes another as the team is whisked off into deep space to help Professor X, who hasn't been seen in the title in a very long time. We get another tale of dynastic struggle within the Shi'Ar empire combined with another alien menace, with the Starjammers and Imperial Guard both adding to the action along with the threat of Professor X seemingly gone bad once more. Meanwhile back on Earth Magneto and Rogue, together with Ka-Zar and S.H.I.E.L.D., confront Zaladane and the Mutates in the Savage Land but the issue is really an exploration of Magneto's character as he steps ever closer back to his traditional role as a villain and the X-Men's archenemy. It's a journey that's been a struggle for both the character himself and the creative forces, with Claremont's dialogue and narration doing what it can to smooth the passage of the artificial pullback. Both the Shi'Ar and Savage Land settings have been done to death by now and there isn't much added beyond manoeuvring both Professor X and Magneto back to their traditional locations and roles.

The annuals contain two crossover stories. "Kings of Pain" brings together the Muir Island X-Men with X-Factor, the New Warriors and a team that starts off in their own annual under the name "New Mutants" but then becomes "X-Force" for the rest of the story. Part of the problem is that the regular New Mutants title had by this stage ceased and a few months later the new X-Force launched to continue the story with this annual published in the interim. Exactly how this mess came about is unclear though it's possible that the regular title was held back due to creative delays, leaving the annual in limbo. Whatever the reasoning, the name of Cable's team is the least of the storyline's problems. "Kings of Pain" is an all too typical example of the messy and overlong storylines that often ran in the annual crossovers of the period, with each chapter trying to satisfy both the title's regular readers who may have only joined the storyline at this stage but also readers of the whole thing. The result is an elongated confusion as one team after another gets drawn into a scheme by A.I.M. via the Alliance of Evil to empower the mutant Piecemeal with the energies of Proteus, resurrecting the latter in the process. The whole thing climaxes on Muir Island and has to tiptoe around developments in the regular series but is ultimate forgettable. A second crossover is "The Killing Stroke" in just the three mutant annuals; this three-part story sees the remains of Freedom Force battling Desert Sword, a team of heroes from across the Middle East, whilst on a mission in occupied Kuwait. It was an attempt to be very much of its time but now feels like a convoluted mess. The X-Men annual also carries two brief back-up stories. One features "The Origin of the X-Men" as Mojo briefly reviews the history of the team as prospective entertainment but balks at all the spin-off teams, in an unsubtle commentary on how the franchise has grown. The other features Wolverine having a nightmare where he battles his adamantium skeleton in an attempt to come to terms with it. As the first full issue released in the post-Claremont era (although here it's placed earlier between issues #277 & #278), annual #15 does not bode well for the future. Instead, it serves as both a demonstration of and a commentary on how chaotic and confusing the whole franchise has become.

The final steps towards restoration and also the end of Claremont's time on the series come with the "Muir Island Saga" in which the Shadow King makes his first full attack in the present day, Professor X is reunited with his original students and Colossus returns to the team, regaining his original memories and personality in the process. Once again we can see the creative struggles manifesting themselves on the pages as characters get rapidly restored or disposed of according to conflicting demands and Claremont departs midway through both the storyline and an individual issue. The Shadow King may be a part of Xavier's history but usually the foes from his pre-teaching days when he travelled the world have been left undisturbed and there isn't as great a sense of an epic showdown as such a storyline demands. This is also the story that dissolves the original X-Factor back into the X-Men, undoing many years of a distinctly different take on the team, and once more it's rather rushed in. As a result the series reaches the twin critical moments of the main guiding force leaving and the expansion into a second title under far from ideal circumstances.

The second "adjectiveless" X-Men series launched in 1991 with a rather silly gimmick of five different covers, four of which fitted together to form a single image that was the gatefold on the fifth. Or in other words if one wanted to see the full picture one could just get the gatefold edition. Coming at a time of rampant speculation not so much by collectors as by comic shops the issue saw over eight million copies sold. This was apparently the record holder for the highest ever sales on a single comic, although the five different covers is a complication as are some of the publication practices in other countries that can split sales over multiple contenders. As is the fact that the bulk of recorded sales were wholesale rather than retail and by many accounts a huge number of copies wound up as unsold overstock in comic shops all over the globe. It was an early sign of the weaknesses in the market but, although no individual issue would again have quite such a high order rate, it didn't encourage restraint amongst publishers.

The new series itself kicks off with a final intersection of the old and the new. Chris Claremont returns for a final three-part story (although he has subsequently returned to the X-Men multiple times in later years) which sets out to establish the new status quo for both the X-Men and Magneto. The mansion is restored and with Professor X having been absent so long he finds there is so much about the team and their powers that is new to him. We're back to an age of the mansion as both a school and a base, with the X-Men developing their powers under the guidance of Xavier and fighting traditional foes such as Magneto. There are concessions to the new age, with the X-Men nominally split into two separate groupings, the "Blue" and "Gold" teams which seems an elegant way to keep so many characters around and have separate writers on the two separate books. There's also another change visually with the uniforms largely disposed of, bar Forge and Banshee, and instead the X-Men now sport a mixture of brand new and older costumes. With the conspicuous exception of Wolverine the visual look is now that which would be adopted by the 1990s cartoon, which also used the "Blue" team as the basis for its main cast albeit with a few alterations.

Claremont's last storyline seeks to return to Magneto to villainy in a way that's respectful to the character development that's come before yet also position the master of magnetism as a recurring credible foe. The latter is achieved with the addition of the Acolytes, a group of mutants who come to him to serve both the man and his vision. However it soon becomes clear that one of them, Fabian Cortez, who has the power to re-energise other mutants, has other plans. The former aim of trying to make the abrupt changes seem natural rather flounders with the revelation that Magneto had been subject to genetic modification when de-aged to a baby and this had affected his behaviour when re-aged to adulthood. It feels as though a decade's worth of character development is being thrown away - and this is probably how it felt to Claremont at the time as he finally lost the battle over the character. The story, the volume and the whole Claremont era all end with a reassertion of the different philosophies of Professor X and Magneto, a fitting point to go out on.

Overall this volume shows the series being dragged in the direction of false nostalgia, first to revisit successful stories ad themes from the past and then to have an as near as achievable recreation of a mythical golden age for the characters, undoing many of the changes made over the years. A lot of comics have gone down the route of reset switches over the years but X-Men has hitherto never fallen into such an easy trap. The result is that this final volume is a rather disappointing end of an era.

Essential X-Men volume 11 - creator labels

Once more there's a volume with a lot of creators so here's the separate labels post.

What now?

Those of you who have been keeping track will have observed that there's just one more Essential volume to go, which I'll be covering today. Next Wednesday I'll do the traditional "Previews" post to mop up the series in question.

When I first started this blog some years ago I had a rather narrower scope of just the Spider-Man volumes (and thus picked a blog title that has been rather inaccurate for a while now), never realising I'd wind up reviewing the whole lot. But all good things must come to an end.

This blog isn't quite finished though. The Christmas special looks at Showcase Presents volumes have been popular and there'll be one further next week.


Erm, that will be explained next week. Also popular have been the "What If?" looks at other series that could have been collected in the Essentials but weren't. There'll be at least one further one.


That will hopefully not need to be explained. Back to where I was... Beyond that the blog will aim to go out with a definitive ending rather than wandering aimlessly through other reprint formats. The very last post will highlight some of the best of the Essential volumes.

But for now, here comes Essential X-Men volume 11.

Friday, 11 December 2015

What If... Essential Spider-Man 2099 volume 1?

Another in this look at hypothetical Essential volumes...

Essential Spider-Man 2099 volume 1 would contain issues #1 to #14 and annual #1 plus the Spider-Man 2099 stories from 2099 Unlimited #1 to #3. These are otherwise available in Spider-Man 2099 Classic volumes 1 & 2. It would be a slightly slim volume but the alternative would be to stop half-way through the "Fall of the Hammer" crossover between the-then five 2099 titles. The writing on the regular series and annual is by Peter David with one back-up story in the annual by Ian Edginton. The art on the regular series is by Rick Leonardi with individual issues by Kelley Jones and Tom Grindberg, whilst the annual is drawn by Ron Lim, Tom Grindberg and Malcolm Davis. The 2099 Unlimited stories are written by Evan Skolnick and drawn by Chris Wozniak.

Marvel has a long history of creating alternative new universes of titles that try to offer a line of comics that are at least somewhat detached from the regular Marvel universe. Other examples over the years have included the New Universe, the MC2 line set a generation into the future and the Ultimate universe. Each has tried to balance the aims of being attractive to existing Marvel fans whilst also being new reader friendly by detaching the characters from what can seem an overwhelming existing universe. How far they go and just what connection they have to the regular universe has varied over the years. Here the idea was to look ahead approximately a century to a world where the heroes were now legends of history but some might take up their mantle. Marvel were not the first to set heroes in the year 2099; it was the year Judge Dredd's stories began. But around the start of the 1990s there was a burst of future set prediction that tried to anticipate the next century - and so far the results show that usually it didn't predict it very well.

The New York of 2099 is a cyberpunk dystopia of the kind common in 1980s and 1990s science fiction. Corporations are in charge with their own police forces. Social divides are ever starker between those living in the high rise hi tech skyscrapers with no end of technical comforts and those living in "Downtown", the ground level rundown old part of the city which includes the Grand Central railway station. There are flying cars, computer holograms, genetic engineering and specially addictive drugs amidst the standard future technology. Concerns of the 1990s are projected forward, whether it's an obsession with virtual reality technology or showing a world where tobacco has been banned. Notably though there are some omissions, particularly smartphones with cameras everywhere which would make a secret identity even harder to maintain. It's a vision of the future that is at once both optimistic about technological advancements but also cynical about the world they will bring with them. It also contains the well worn science fiction cliché of a religion based upon past interventions though there's more logic to it than most as it's based upon worship of Thor, albeit with other heroes such as the original Spider-Man sharing some of the adoration which becomes a minor running theme here.

The era's links to the original "Heroic Age" are mixed but there's absolutely no need to be familiar with individual stories or characters to follow this series at this stage at least, though a cameo by the Doctor Doom of 2099 suggests this is not the case for every character in the line. As is often the case with new universes created in one go there were attempts to provide a broader coherent structure to the whole 2099 line but it's not particularly intrusive here and thus this currently series stands on its own two feet. But it still draws its influences from the main Marvel universe with a successor to the biggest name hero plus over more subtle elements ranging from unstable molecule clothing now being commercially available, albeit expensively, or a foe using the name "Vulture". The precise details of how the "Heroic Age" ended or why the heroes didn't stop the world going the way it did are left unexplored.

There's no link at all between Miguel O'Hara and Peter Parker. Miguel is neither a descendant of Peter (as far as we know though his mixed Irish and Hispanic heritage would suggest against it), nor is he someone who stumbles across a cache of costumes and equipment. Thus the original Spider-Man is just a figure of history and legend. There's also a seemingly conscious desire to do things differently with the origin and powers but subsequent developments in not only the regular Marvel universe but also the Ultimate line and both sets of movies now mean that far from being a radically different origin, this is instead a forerunner of things to come. Just as radiation was the amazing science of the early 1960s that drove the original Spider-Man's origin, so too was genetic engineering the amazing science of the 1990s which now creates Spider-Man 2099. In both cases it's frankly nonsense but then a lot of science fiction takes contemporary scientific advancements to spin tall tales out of them. Also reflecting contemporary concerns is the role of an amoral corporation whose developments and flaws cause the accidents that lead to the hero's powers. It should come as no surprise that Ultimate Spider-Man and both sets of movies, all of which came in the next couple of decades, have used a similar combination of genetic engineering and corporations to empower their Spider-Men. Equally of note given the controversy when it later happened to Peter is the use of organic webshooters. No more is Spider-Man restrained by web fluid running out at the worst possible moment or the shooters jamming or even foes deliberately crushing them. Together with a stylised costume that has a very different look and focus we get that rare thing, a Spider-Man for a new age whose existence in no way threatens the original one we all know and adore.

Miguel is very different from Peter, often seemingly deliberately so. His story begins in adulthood (and one of the downsides of the name "2099" is that everything has to take place in a single year; a problem that should have been spotted after the experience of the Iron Man of 2020), working as a scientist for a corporation and already engaged. Most of his family are still alive though his father is already dead and his relations with the rest of the family are all tetchy. Miguel is quite a wise-cracker unmasked whereas as Spider-Man he's mostly silent. And there's less of the traditional morality, enhanced by Spider-Man having retractable claws that don't just allow him to climb walls but can also be vicious and even lethal in battle, using his claws without care for wounds and even letting foes fall to their deaths. The 1990s was very much an era of dark anti-heroes and it's unsurprising that this approach manifests itself here. But it comes with a risk. There's more to Spider-Man than the name and powers derived from a spider and reading through these stories it's hard to feel that Miguel is a valid spiritual successor to Peter and worthy of the name. Now that scenario is not an invalid approach in itself when it's tackled head on to establish whether or not the new lead is worthy of the mantle of the old and indeed what is the very essence to qualify. But there's none of that here. Instead the series is drifting towards simply using the name as a hook to bring readers in.

It's not completely there though. There are a number of developments that try to recreate some of the feel and spirit of the original Spider-Man stories for a new age. A strong attempt is made to develop an interesting supporting case, starting with Miguel's fiancée Dana D'Angelo, though curiously the stories in 2099 Unlimited instead show Miguel involved with a lady called Anna Coye. The similarities of the names suggest that Evan Skolnick was probably working off an early set of notes that were subsequently modified but it's also a sign of weak editorial control when the 2099 line was presented as a more joined up and co-ordinated universe than was normally the case. The other main woman in Miguel's life isn't human but a computer called Lyla, who interacts via a holographic projection that is currently in the form of Marilyn Monroe and who appears to be developing feelings for Miguel. Rounding out the initial main cast is Miguel's younger brother Gabriel, who tries to reach out to him despite disagreements over corporate ethics. The two O'Hara men have dated some of the same women over the years such as Gabriel's current girlfriend Kasey Nash, making for some interesting situations. It gets even more complicated when Kasey falls for Spider-Man. Later on we're introduced to Conchata, Miguel and Gabriel's mother, and see their father George in flashbacks. It's a tense family history with each parent having different expectations for each of their sons and how it's left Miguel bitter until now. However these characters so far lack the charm and excitement of a traditionally well done supporting cast.

There are a variety of foes, some with more lasting power than others. At the core of the series is the struggle with the Alchemax corporation and its chief executive Tyler Stone, with Miguel resenting his employer ever more and indeed he gains the Spider-Man powers when seeking to escape the drug addiction control Stone forces upon him. Foes Alchemax they deploy include the bounty hunter Venture in the origin three parter. They also control the Public Eye, the privately run police force of the era. When Sergeant Estevez fails to kill Spider-Man he is summarily dismissed and all his possessions seized in severance, leaving him trying to regain his job by achieving the kill. Rival corporation Stark-Fujikawa deploys the techno samurai the Specialist. A joint project between the two produces Siege, who uses SItuation Emergency GEar, showing that the future still has awkward names devised purely to generate a pronounceable acronym. Siege doesn't last long, becoming cannon fodder to introduce the mysterious Thanatos, an enhanced warrior dressed in something resembling ancient Greek armour and waging war on Alchemax. He also comes with his own pre-existing foe, the equally mysterious dimensional wandering Net Prophet. At the lower level Downtown, the deprived part of the city, contains the Watchdogs gang and the Vulture 2099, a sign of societal degeneration who has turned cannibal. The annual introduces the Fenris Gang, another grouping though it's underdeveloped at this stage, and Chernobyl, a 20th century Soviet agent caught in suspended animation when his submarine sank. The stories from 2099 Unlimited largely stand alone and develop Mutagen, a foe obsessed with preventing the transmission of genetic diseases and seeks to achieve this by killing carriers so they don't do what he did to his daughter. There's also a completely forgettable mad scientist who is killed off in his debut story without leaving any sense of a lost opportunity.

This series and supporting stories certainly make a good effort to develop both the characters and the world around them, and there are some other good developments such as the Spiderite movement, an offshoot of the Thor worship, with many followers dressing as Spider-Man to various degrees of trouble. There's also a lot of hints that Miguel's identity is not as well hidden as the traditional superhero's, injecting a degree of realism into the classic scenario. But overall this is a very lacklustre series primarily riding off the back of the name "Spider-Man". Peter David makes a strong effort to bring the characters to life but too often they fall flat, as though in trying to be original too much of what makes the original Spider-Man work is deliberately ignored. The result is a series that just fails to excite at this critical starting stage. 2099 hasn't dated at all well and on its own merits this series doesn't stand out as one needing collecting. Recent revivals have, however, generated more interest in the character which could make a hypothetical Essential a useful release.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A few Defenders previews

As is standard when I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and/or character, it's time to take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the New Defenders there's one and a quarter issues, a somewhat unusual arrangement.

New Defenders #145 and the first six pages of #146 written by Peter Gillis (all) and drawn by Don Perlin (#145) and Luke McDonnell (#146), reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

These issues take place in the aftermath of a big battle and see the New Defenders recovering from their injuries and apparent losses. In the course of this an examination of Cloud suggests there is something non-human about her body yet a soldier has a newspaper clipping about a girl resembling Cloud being involved in a car accident. Amidst all this Johnny Blaze, now free of the Ghost Rider, and his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson visit his old Champions comrades to catch up and ask for a loan. Now free of all his demons, not just the ones with blazing skulls, Johnny has an optimistic outlook on life and contributes to persuading the New Defenders to not disband. The second issues is cut short as Johnny and Roxanne head off.

The partial inclusion of the second issue is to allow the volume as a whole to end on a good moment, this serving as a happily ever after epilogue to the Ghost Rider's own series. Otherwise this is a downtime moment for the team as they lick their wounds and face the future with depleted numbers, as well as advancing a number of subplots such as Andrea, a mysterious woman in New York, Cloud's background or Moondragon's continued struggle with the Dragon of the Moon. In isolation this is actually quite a confusing issue and a bit, especially as Johnny and Roxanne's visit is largely incidental to just about everything else.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Essential Defenders volume 7

Essential Defenders volume 7 comprises New Defenders #126 to #139 plus the two four-part limited series Iceman and Beauty and the Beast. Bonus material includes various adverts for the series and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Angel, the Beast, Gargoyle, Iceman, Moondragon and Valkyrie. The main series is written by J.M. DeMatteis and then Peter Gillis. Most issues are drawn by Don Perlin with others by Alan Kupperberg, Sal Buscema and Mike Zeck. A brief comedy piece in #127 is co-written by Ann Nocenti and Marie Severin and drawn by the latter. The Iceman limited series is written by DeMatteis and drawn by Kupperberg and the Beauty and the Beast limited series is written by Nocenti and drawn by Perlin.

Were the New Defenders created even a decade later it's very likely that the existing title would have been cancelled and replaced with a new series starting from issue #1 in spite of some continuity of personnel, as happened with later examples such as the New Mutants/X-Force or the Avengers/New Avengers. And in turn it's probable that it would have been reprinted in a different format so I wouldn't actually be writing this post. (Indeed the early issues have also been collected in the Classic-in-all-but-name format but so far there hasn't been a second volume.) But instead at the time it was more standard to continue the existing title and numbering through a bold new direction rather than rebooting the numbering and creating yet more issue #1s and volumes to confuse us all.

The New Defenders differ from the previous incarnation in having a more formalised and institutionally recognised team, though it takes some time before they sort out matters such as a leader, a fully resourced base and government clearance. By this point none of the founding members are around and instead the team is initially made up of the Valkyrie, Gargoyle, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Moondragon, with newish character Cloud subsequently joining them. Even by the standards of the Defenders this is a rather bizarre line-up drawing characters from all over and it helps to explain why this team is one of the most obscure and forgotten in Marvel's history despite having no less than three former X-Men on the team. This is also a series that tries to continue to explore the weird and offbeat rather than battling big name supervillains. It also seeks to do some things with the characters that are quite different from the norm, though it doesn't always do so in the best way.

The early issues resolve the ongoing Secret Empire saga, with the newly organised New Defenders battling alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. against a succession of agents and robots. Much of the situation is mundane apart from Professor Power now occupying the body of his son whose mind was destroyed in a battle with Professor X, fuelling a desire for vengeance against Xavier's children at the same time as wider plans for global destruction and conquest. The real emphasis is on how the team is still coming together, with the members learning the hard way that they need to co-ordinate their actions whilst the question of leadership is still unsettled. At the same time their traditional New York home is destroyed and the team relocate to the Angel's remote mountain home in New Mexico. The resolution is also a brutal introduction to the very different ethics amongst the team with Moondragon demonstrating the complexity that will recur throughout the run.

Subsequent issues have a variety of foes from the surreal to the wacky. Gargoyle is captured by a middle eastern wizard and grown to enormous size in order to battle his teammates whom the wizard mistakenly believe are demons. A visit to San Francisco sees the team working with a hard arse private detective in a run-in with drug smugglers that's fairly mundane in itself but as revenge the assassin Manslaughter is sent to their base to dispose of them and his powers and skills make for a tense issue as he sneaks through, picking off the team one by one. The base is also invaded by a set of mutant plant spores that prove nearly impossible to destroy. The nearby town harbours a criminal whose body is invulnerable to fire, making him the perfect arsonist for hire. On the sillier side is the introduction of the Walrus, a man endowed with the proportionate ability and strength of his namesake. His attack is damaging to the Beast's slowly developing career as a lecturer, with the situation made worse by the intervention of would-be hero the Fabulous Frog-Man. In times past Frog-Man would wind up on the list of Defenders members but instead the new organisation means he becomes the first costumed hero to truly ally with the team. The second is Red Wolf, who works with the team in investigating the many deaths around a silver mine that turns out to be a portal to the realm of the Asgardian trolls.

But at times it seems the biggest threat is within the team's own midst. Moondragon previously took over a whole world and as part of her rehabilitation Odin has assigned her to the Valkyrie and placed a metal band around the telepath's head to restrict her from using her power too much for personal gain. Throughout the run Moondragon frequently declares her available power is insufficient to deal with the problem at hand and urges the others to remove the band. Gargoyle eventually sees inside her mind during a link and discovers how in the past her mind was invaded by the ancient Titan demon known as the Dragon of the Moon. In fighting off the demon she has become like it, even taking its name. Eventually the trolls offer to remove the headband, bringing Moondragon's struggle to learn humility and control to the fore. There are also hints that Moondragon has used her powers to influence other team members to fall for her. Early on both Iceman and the Angel fall for her and repeatedly think exactly identical thoughts but this disappears after a change in writers.

In general the rest of the existing members are developed slowly with hints more than anything else. The Beast launches a career as a lecturer that takes him away from the team at times, though not always from danger. Valkyrie continues her mission to watch over Moondragon but also demonstrates that she still performs her mythological role when she guides the spirit of a dying heroic sheriff to the afterlife. Gargoyle continues his friendship with the Defenders' housekeeper Dolly Donahue. The Angel continues worrying about how the Champions fell apart and determining that it won't happen to this team. Iceman finds himself drawn to not only Moondragon but also Cloud, with confusion as a result. The team's eventual leader is a surprise as she's not active in the field but instead a manager who is good at organising the team and getting the base's facilities sorted, Candy Southern. It's a change from the normal type of superhero team leader, showing how things are done differently. The team is a little more conventional in having a cute pet in the form of Sassafras the dog.

Cloud, the newest member, throws up some of the most promising but also frustrating developments. A young woman with the ability to turn into a cloud (when she changes back naked there's always conveniently enough vapour covering up exactly the right places), she has been used as an agent by the Secret Empire who killed her parents and deceived her into believing Seraph was her sister. The fact that Seraph was a Soviet double agent just compounds the confusion and so it seems only the Defenders can offer a place where Cloud can truly belong. She settles in well and finds herself attracted to Moondragon, declaring her feelings for her at the end of one issue. Then it gets seriously messy. Cloud is torn between wanting to go with her feelings and her instinct that they are wrong, a dilemma many who've struggled with their sexuality will recognise. But then Cloud decides the only way to make things right is to change her human form to male. This in turn makes Iceman very uneasy as he had been drawn to Cloud, and Cloud's subsequent switching between male and female forms does not help the situation.

It's incredible that a regular Marvel comic was willing to go anywhere near these subjects in 1984 and it shows the advantages some of the more obscure titles had in being able to push boundaries. But the combination of both sexuality and transgender issues feels less like a pushing of the boat as far as possible and more like a cack-handed, and possibly editorial driven, attempt to back away from having a lesbian relationship storyline. Cloud's transformation feels not like an embracing of true identity but rather an attempt to conform to societal norms by changing gender to avoid a same sex relationship. It feels uncomfortably close to a practice that even today is still carried out in parts of the world whereby lesbians, gays and bisexuals are forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery to "cure" them of their sexuality by making them the opposite gender to those they have feelings for. Further issues try to undo some of the damage with a revelation that Cloud's true self is somehow two separate beings, one female, one male, but the precise implications of this aren't explored before the end of the volume. What's left is a bold step forward and two chaotic steps back.

Issue #127 fell in "Assistant Editors' Month" when all the Marvel editors were supposedly out of the office for a month and their assistants were able to run loose with wacky ideas. But here the sole contribution (bar a comedy figure in the cover box) is a two page comedy strip in which Ann Nocenti daydreams about having all power and transforming the line - before the production manager appears in the dream with a load of mundane tasks that need address, shocking her back to reality. Given that this really only the second issue of the new incarnation of the team (issue #125 may have sported the "New Defenders" series title but was as much about out with the old as anything else) it would have been foolish to suddenly switch away from the norm for a month, showing the problems that come with line wide events that have no respect for individual series's autonomy.

The Iceman limited series is very bizarre. It was presumably published to capitalise on the character's popularity from his co-starring role in the cartoon Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends but it really doesn't seem to know just what audience it's pitched at or just what it's trying to do. There's a basic theme of parents and children coming to understand one another but otherwise we get a turbulent adventure that goes from a Drake family party in a small town on Long Island to a city during the Second World War to the realm of the mysterious Oblivion. There's time travel, dreamscapes, self-doubt and conflict amidst what at first promises to be a bold solo adventure but turns into an introspective psychological analysis. It feels as though the basics of the story and the entity Oblivion were originally drawn up for some other character but were then used for Iceman without too much thought. The character has a long history of outwardly being the goofy light-hearted member of successive teams whilst inwardly being full of self-doubt and wondering if superheroing is the right thing for him or if he should complete a conventional education. This history is respected and expanded upon through exploring his parents' attitudes to his career choices, whilst he's once again drawn to a woman, this time literally the girl next door, Marge. However it starts going weird when she's attacked by the duo of White Light and the Idiot, goes seriously off the rails when he's flung back to the 1940s and meets his parents in his youth whilst under attack from Kali, before finally becoming a complete mess when Iceman's father is killed in the past, causing him to fade out of existence and into the realm of Oblivion. Iceman simply isn't the right character for a cosmic introspection adventure. On more than one occasion in the series he's confused with the Silver Surfer and one has to wonder if this was on the writer's mind as well. The dedicated limited series was in its early days when this was produced so it may not have been clear if this was meant as a one-off piece of character development or a test run to see if there was both creative and sales potential to support an ongoing title. But whatever the aims, the result is a complicated mishmash which can hardly have appealed to readers lured in by the character's cartoon appearances. It's presumably been included here in order to make up the page count to allow the whole New Defenders era fit two whole volumes, an unfortunate move in hindsight, but it frankly could easily have been left in a pile of long forgotten limited series that don't get dug out for complete sequential reprint runs.

So too could Beauty and the Beast. This is a very odd series that seems to have started with the title and then tried to find appropriate contents. It doesn't really succeed and winds up having to distort both title characters in order to fit into the roles required of them. The Beast takes some time out from the team and goes to Los Angeles where he surprisingly falls for Dazzler despite nothing in their histories together suggesting this and they break up at the end with no real mention of it again. Dazzler is at a low point in her career having been recently outed as a mutant and now finding her work all dried up as a result of prejudice. She foolishly accepts a job in a strange underground theatre that turns out to be a modern gladiatorial arena where she's being drugged to lose control of her powers and dispel notions of leaving. The Beast tries to convince her to leave and there's further complications with the alleged son of Doctor Doom trying to use the set-up for his own purposes plus his father making his own plans despite being dead in other Marvel titles at this time. About the only decent concept in the whole story is the Heartbreak Hotel where a number of mutants with quite ineffective powers have found a safe haven. But otherwise this limited series is a turgid mess of scenario, characterisation and continuity that really should have been completely forgotten rather than being given not one but two reprintings across the Essentials (the other is in Essential Dazzler volume 2).

The inclusion of the two limited series was presumably to help fit the whole New Defenders era into two standard size Essential volumes but with the ending of the line the result is this incarnation only gets halfway and the series as a whole stops tantalisingly close to the final issue. Consequently this volume feels somewhat insubstantial as it only gets part of the way through developing the characters and team, not helped by the change of writers midway through and the limited series having no noticeable impact in the regular title. That's a pity as, numbers aside, this is effectively the first volume of a new title and it could have used some more issues. As a result, what we get is a protracted formalisation of the Defenders that nails down the membership but is still sorting through the rest of the set-up. Some of the characters get more attention than others and the developments with Moondragon are especially strong. Unfortunately the handling of Cloud's feelings for Moondragon starts off well but is then handled in a terrible manner that suggests a sudden change order from on high. Overall this is a title that really tries to do things differently from before but isn't yet hitting stellar heights.

Friday, 27 November 2015

What If... Essential The 'Nam volume 1?

Another in this look at hypothetical Essential volumes...

Essential The 'Nam volume 1 would contain issues #1 to #21. These are otherwise available in two trade paperbacks that are Classics in all but name, released in 2009 & 2010 with the last issue in the third from 2011. (Be warned there were other trades with suspiciously similar names in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s.) Additionally it would include a couple of brief stories from Savage Tales #1 & #4 that were a forerunner of the series and which can also be found in the third volume. Bonus material would include "'Nam Notes", a glossary of military terms and slang from each issue plus perhaps some of the covers from the special magazine that reprinted two issues at a time. All the issues are written by Doug Murray with an initial art run by Michael Golden who is succeeded by Wayne Vansant with one issue by John Severin. The Savage Tales stories were also written by Murray and drawn by Golden.

War stories have a long tradition in comics but by the mid 1980s they were largely dying out in the US market and were one of the genres that didn't really survive the transition to the direct market. So it's a surprise to see that Marvel launched not only a new title but on focusing on what was at the time the single most controversial conflict that the United States had been involved with. But The 'Nam is a far cry from the traditional war comic that shows soldiers performing incredible actions against a demonised foe. Indeed the first of the Savage Tales stories that act as a forerunner say it best when the narrator declares, "All in all, this ain't 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes'." [sic] Nor does it set out to justify the conflict in retrospect. Instead, it tells the story of ordinary soldiers on the ground, showing what it was really like.

My country was not (officially) involved in Vietnam. Had it been then it is quite possible my father and/or one of my uncles would have seen service there. Instead, the British mainly know the war only through exposure to its portrayal in US media. Consequently it doesn't have the same resonance here, nor is there an obvious equivalent conflict. The United Kingdom's confidence as a world power had been blunted in the 1950s by the Suez Crisis but that was very much a diplomatic and economic humiliation rather than a military one. Nor were tactics and methods known about and attacked back home in a way that split society and saw many returning soldiers attacked and shunned. The military did not go out of fashion in entertainment here - e.g. military toys did not have problems in the market so that whereas G.I. Joe shifted to become more of an adventurer, Action Man carried on in traditional military combat. More recently Iraq has seen bitter division over taking action and it has certainly had an impact on foreign policy since. Servicemen and women have been through an experience that nobody who wasn't there can ever truly understand. However, returning troops haven't been attacked as though they are the ones responsible for the invasion. The scars are deep but different from those created by Vietnam. As a result, the demonisation and rehabilitation of Vietnam veterans is something that is only understood indirectly here.

Doug Murray is a veteran of Vietnam and it shows in the writing. How much of it is autobiographical and how much comes from others is unclear, but there's a strong personal element and passion to the writing, as though he's finally getting the chance to tell how it really was. This stands out particularly with the depiction of some officers who are so callous about the men under their command that it's a surprise they don't get shot or fragged (murdered with a grenade) by their own side sooner, or with the fates of men as diverse as tunnel runners or the left behind. The language may be a little sanitised and there may be some subjects such as drugs that are steered clear of but that was a price worth paying to be able to get as much of the story out there to a wide audience - and in any case the series does get close with some of the swearing such as "Holy sh--" or "REMF" - the acronym for Rear Echelon Mother Fucker, meaning desk based staff who took decisions without being in the field themselves. There's a lot of army jargon in use and each issue carried "'Nam Notes" to explain the various acronyms, slang and technical terms used by soldiers at the time.

At this stage, the series takes place in approximately real time, with the first issue starting in early January 1966 and issue #21 is set in October 1967. Each issue takes place roughly one month after the previous, with no grand cliffhangers. It's thus possible to dip in and out of any individual issue, making it extremely new reader friendly and helping the title to grow its audience once word of mouth came in. But it also provides a degree of rigid structure to the narrative, reflecting the rigidity of army postings, and preventing the title from getting bogged down with individual incidents. This also allows the series to rotate its cast, reflecting the way men were assigned for a thirteen month period and looked forward to the last months when they were "short" and could expect to not be sent out in the field then a wake-up and the freedom bird home. Of course not everyone was limited to thirteen months and the series does show some longer serving officers and NCOs as well as men who choose "re-up" for additional tours of duty in Vietnam, whether because they want better promotion prospects to help their careers, to leave the army sooner or to exploit the rule on only one family at a combat zone at any given time and thus keep younger brothers out of Vietnam. However even the last reason is questioned with the story of what instead happened to one brother.

The first issue gives a strong flavour of what is to come. Edward Marks is a young private who gets deployed in Vietnam in the 4/23d Infantry ("Mechanized, of course!") in January 1966. And nothing has prepared him for what he finds there. The art captures a young fresh faced soldier discovering just what war really means. There's confusion and corruption in the army when he arrives. When he goes out on patrol, he rapidly finds out how dangerous it is in the field. He sees bodies and kills for the first time and his reaction isn't triumph but to vomit. He meets fellow soldiers at various stages of their tour of duty, all slowly conditioned by what they have experienced and becoming ever more cynical. At the end of the issue the soldiers watch a war film and comment how it is nothing like reality.

Marks is the primary character for the first thirteen issue and later on another devotes a large chunk to a letter from him about his experiences back in "the world" (which the "'Nam Notes" glossary tells us means the US - an interesting insight into perspectives) as he comes home. We don't learn too much about his background until the letter issue but it's clear he comes from a close knit family and is relatively naive of not only the world of Vietnam around him but even parts of the adult world in general. This is most notable early on when he's taken on leave to Saigon and is ignorant both about cinema snacks and about women, to the point where he's nearly mugged when he thinks he's getting off for the first time. However he's also supported by the camaraderie of the his fellow soldiers who are used to "greenie" new recruits who take time to learn. Service has a clear impact on Marks, most immediately apparent in his increased swearing as commented on by others who note how the "altar boy" is changing. Similarly, he slowly learns that shooting in action is not "a little John Wayne" but a much more brutal and inefficient experience. When he leaves and goes back to his hometown it becomes clear things have changed for both him and his friends. Wider public opinion has also shifted and he doesn't recognise the conflict portrayed in the media. As a result, he determines that someone has to tell the story of how it really is and opts to be that one, in one of the most explicit autobiographical moments.

Marks finishes his tour in issue #13 but we continue to follow the ever-rotating squad with attention shifting to Sergeant Rob Little and Specialist Andy Clark. Little is a long serving soldier who has been wounded twice and ended up on desk duty before the series began but befriends Marks when they're lost in the field on a special mission for a reporter. The action makes him want to go back to the field permanently and he gets a promotion. He serves as the main bridge between Marks and the next generation of soldiers until he's badly wounded by a grenade and ends up nearly losing a leg. Clark is nicknamed "Aesop" for the stories he tells and it's not always clear how much truth there is in them. He has already done one tour but is motivated to re-up both by his seeing an orphanage that he wants to help and by a desire to keep his two younger brothers out of the combat zone.

The progress of time and action brings an ever-changing nature to the cast though the emphasis is nearly always on the 4/23rd. Some characters only appear in a single issue that focuses upon a particular aspect, whether it's defectors from North Vietnam, tunnel runners with one of the worst jobs of all or the air force providing cover. Others continue from issue to issue, making for a real poignancy when they're injured, killed or captured. This truly is a series where anyone can die and it doesn't pull its punches. Nor are the fates always glorious. Mike Albergo is the squad's comedian in the early issues, taking an ironic attitude to the war and becoming Marks's closest friend. Albergo is relaxing after a night's action and looking forward to an early discharge when he's suddenly shot dead by a sniper. It's a shocking moment that shows just how suddenly a man could be lost. Also of note is the platoon leader's letter to the parents, part of which is reproduced on the last panel showing how it gives a different impression from reality in order to disguise the senseless nature of it.

But the biggest anger expressed comes over two soldiers who are last shown alive. Frank Verzyl is a tunnel runner, one of the men sent into the underground tunnels and bases with limited weapons to sweep them clean. In what feels like an inventory story left over from Savage Tales we learn how he was freaked out when exploring a base and suddenly releasing two dozen hungry rats. He escaped only for a newly arrived greenie 2nd lieutenant to insist on sending him back down and the only way out was to shoot the lieutenant. There's a real sense of anger with the idiocy and callousness of such officers who took needless risks with other men's lives and sanity, with the result that Verzyl went insane. The story is told in narrative text rather than speech bubbles and it feels very much as though it's a name change telling of something Murray himself witnessed. There's also a clear sense of anger around the fate of Chandradat Ramnarain. An arrogant experienced soldier who mainly keeps himself to himself, it soon becomes clear he's a black marketer. But his fate is nevertheless undeserved when the incompetent Lieutenant Alarnick sends just three men to check out a village, then declines to send back-up when it becomes clear the Viet Cong are active in the area. Then when under attack and with the other two staggering in wounded, Alarnick writes off Ramnarain, in spite of protests by the sergeant, and orders an air strike. We last see the private alive and captured, watching the platoon being evacuated by helicopter. The issue of men missing in action who were believed by many to still be alive as prisoners of war abandoned by the army and US government has been a contentious one over the years and here we get a strong statement in support of that view.

The depiction of NCOs and officers varies, showing both good competent commanders who will never take unnecessary risks through to foolish glory seekers, cold hearted blunt men of action and corrupt officials. Indeed right at the outset Marks learns about corruption the hard way when he doesn't realise he should have bribed First Sergeant J. Tarver to get a comfortable assignment and is instead placed with Sergeant Polkow, the "Top"'s nemesis. Eventually Tarver is set up and caught out. It's a more comfortable fate than that received by Lieutenant Alarnick, a brutal, callous, racist and arrogant officer who ignores entitlements, puts men onto stupid duties, takes risky action and abandons soldiers in the field. It gets to the point where Little is having nightmares about being dragged ever further into danger by Alarnick who then offers a place in a body bag. The line is crossed when he shoots an unarmed prisoner in the head and declares himself more worthy of medical attention than Little who has just shielded him from a grenade. It comes as no surprise when Alarnick is fragged - murdered with a grenade in his quarters with the strong implication that it was First Sergeant Rowland who planted it. Rowland himself may be a heavy drinker and a covert murderer but otherwise is portrayed as a more reasonable competent man who won't risk lives needlessly. The same is true of the initial commander, Lieutenant Fenelli, and Sergeant Polkow but such is the nature of rotation that both get replaced.

If there's one thing conspicuously absent from the series it's glorification. This is a warts and all version - literally so with even the fungus in wet boots covered. There's also a strong blast at the media coverage, with a television reporter appearing in an early issue and being given special treatment to the point that a helicopter's landing is altered just to get good pictures - with fatal consequences when it's shot down. A village is casually ordered to be napalmed, creating dramatic pictures. Later on Marks sees the typical coverage when he gets back home and is shocked by how different it is from his experience, portraying the Viet Cong as unstoppable and not explaining how important napalm drops and defoliant are to the troops. Marks's letter is written in March 1967, at an early stage in the anti-war momentum, but even at this stage there's a real sense of disconnect and outrage about the image of the war given to the public back home.

But equally life is not all miserable men with many shown finding their own amusements and various official entertainments, including a popular visit by a female university choir. Clark forms an attachment with a nurse, but she is eventually overwhelmed by all the action and injuries and takes a posting in Japan. There are trips into Saigon, though even there the men have to dodge both explosions and crime. Christmas sees an attempt at a truce but it doesn't last with first rocket attacks and then a child brings a grenade into a party. But in spite of all the dangers and despair there's a strong resilience shown as the men do their best to enjoy their time away from the action, making each day easier to bear.

Being the story of ordinary soldiers on the ground, the series doesn't spend much time focusing upon the causes and background to the conflict. The domino theory is raised but only to explain the presence of troops from Thailand which has agreed to join the US action, with the troops taking part in a joint action to acclimatise them. The main background comes in an issue devoted to the story of Duong, a "Kit Carson Scout" who has defected the North Viet Cong. When asked his reason by Marks, Duong tells a personal tale through the events of the Japanese invasion, the French recovery, the French repression and expulsion, partition, the repression under Ngô Đình Diệm and the arrival of the Americans. It's a tale of successive brutal repressions in which the Japanese, the French Foreign Legion including ex Nazis, the Diệm government and the Viet Cong all committed atrocities to the point that Duong came to doubt his own side was bring freedom. It explains his motives but also the motivation of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. And it's told in a way that's a far cry from classic wartime atrocity propaganda.

Overall The 'Nam is a novel in comics form. It aims to give a voice to the ordinary soldier, men who did not take the decision to go to war with North Vietnam or decide what tactics to use. Instead, they found themselves deployed in a chaotic situation in the field and felt nobody back home ever truly understood what it was like. In their heyday many war comics where written and drawn by veterans, who often brought their own experiences and the tales they heard from others to the printed page. The 'Nam sits in that tradition but does so very differently. It's not glamorous. It doesn't set out to justify a controversial military action. It just tells it like it was for the ordinary guy caught in the thick of it. At once so simple and so complex, this is an incredible series that turns the genre on its head and finally delivers a voice. It's easy to see why this series was especially popular with veterans who found they could give it to their families to explain what they had been through. This series is a fine example of what can be achieved with comics.

Should it have had an Essential volume? DC have been much better than Marvel at getting their non-super-hero material into print in the black and white format and have reprinted a good number of war comics. Marvel tends to use other formats for reprinting material from this era so it's unlikely they would ever have done The 'Nam in the Essentials. But given the format of the narrative this is a series that deserves big chunky reprints rather than lots of smaller ones, with the most recent trade paperbacks only having reach issue #30. It's certainly a deserving series.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A few Thor previews

As is standard when I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and/or character, it's time to take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. Thor has had three such issues so far.

Thor #373 to #374 written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1 and also in Essential X-Men volume 6

These issues see Thor return to Earth after an extended period away and with Odin having disappeared in battle with Surtur. He reflects on his lack of life at home and winds up spending time with foreman Jerry Sapristi's family - with the children rapidly seeing through his alter ego Sigurd Jarlson's disguise of glasses and everyday clothes but promising to keep the secret. Then Thor learns of disaster in the Morlock tunnels under Manhattan and goes there to find the Angel being crucified by the Marauders Vertigo, Harpoon and Blockbuster. Elsewhere Balder undertakes a mission with a black feather whilst Volstagg tries to comfort two Earth children after their mother has been killed.

These two issues are part of the "Mutant Massacre" crossover between the various mutant titles and those written by either Louise or Walter Simonson. But for the family connection, it's unlikely the series would have taken part in this event and Thor's contribution to the event is rather slight, consisting of rescuing the Angel and then seeing to the aftermath. With Hela having placed a curse on Thor that makes his bones brittle, these two issues focus heavily on the themes of parents and death. There's quite a bit going on from other Thor issues from the period that can make these two hard to follow in isolation, even though they also offer some decent character moments such as Sigurd's time with the Sapristi children or Thor's reflections upon the fate of the Morlocks. But overall the title didn't need to take part in the crossover and it shows.

Thor #378 written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 2

Loki has schemed with the Frost Giants and brought Ice-Man to Asgard in order to restore his allies to their full strength, but the mutant's powers go beyond expectations, driving the Frost Giants into an independent attack. Meanwhile Thor has been badly injured and his brittle bones will not heel so he summons a special suit of armour he has had forged on Earth and imbues it with magical properties. Within the new armour, he is now fully fighting again. Elsewhere Asgard is hit by a mysterious illness that removes all motion.

This is a mid part to a storyline and its inclusion on its own makes for a rather awkward mess as we join Ice-Man after his capture but only see the resolution to his own involvement, with consequences that will last some time in X-Factor. For Thor this is actually a pretty major issue, as his armour constitutes the single biggest change in his look yet. Though it serves as an exo-skeleton to compensate for the failings of his own body, it doesn't in anyway feel like a rip off of Iron Man's armour but instead an extension of the magical themes of the series. Loki is bolder than usual by standing up to the Frost Giants, in part because his own father was one, and the result is a set of multiple dilemmas. Overall this is an issue that's trying to do a lot at once and succeeding, but it's hard to follow in isolation as it's only a mid part of a tight storyline.
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