Friday, 23 October 2015

What If... Essential Champions volume 1?

Another look at a series as if it had been collected in an Essential volume, including all the additional issues included in other collections. This one is otherwise found in Champions Classic volumes 1 and 2.

Essential Champions volume 1 would contain all seventeen issues of the 1970s series plus the crossover issue Super-Villain Team-Up #14, the guest appearances in Iron Man annual #4 and Avengers #163, and also the epilogue in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #17 to #18. (This is also the combination of the forthcoming Masterworks edition.) That would be a slim volume but there are some Essentials this thin. Bonus material, if it were needed, could include some unused covers - the Classics include one for issue #7 that had only minor changes - and also entries from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The writing on the main series is initially by creator Tony Isabella who is succeeded by Bill Mantlo with one issue by Chris Claremont. The art on the main series is by Don Heck, George Tuska, Bob Hall and John Byrne with most making at least one return during the run. The Iron Man annual is written by Mantlo and drawn by Tuska, the Avengers issue is written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Tuska, the Super-Villain Team-Up one is written by Mantlo and drawn by Hall, and the Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man issues are written by Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema.

1975 was a big year for team titles at Marvel. As well as the ongoing exploits of the Avengers, Defenders and Fantastic Four it also saw the launch of the All New All Different X-Men, the debut of the Invaders and the start of the Champions. But whereas all the other titles would last for several years, Champions would limp along for just over two years, confined to the odd eight-issues-a-year format that would make multi-part stories take ages to resolve and never really breaking out into a big hit. In the years since there has been little in the way of revivals bar a one-off reunion to work with X-Force in one of the 1998 team-up annuals. Otherwise the team has been mostly forgotten and treated as a joke when remembered, with Iceman once bemoaning "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a major super-villain in Los Angeles?" (We'll find out in this review.) The nadir must surely have been when the right to use the name was won in a poker game by the team usually known as the Great Lakes Avengers but even they didn't make much of a mark with it before finding yet another name. And so the Champions have languished in obscurity.

Part of the problem may be the sheer difficulty of getting the original team back together under the title "Champions" - after the original series ended a different comic company adapted a role playing game property by the same name and at least twice Marvel has been rebuffed in attempts to reobtain the trademark. (The X-Force/Champions '98 annual was probably part of one of these attempts.) But also the team members are a pretty disparate bunch normally found spread across very distinctive parts of the Marvel universe and it can't be the easiest task to obtain the whole set for even a one-off reunion.

The team itself is initially comprised of five heroes, with another joining midway through. Leading the group is the Black Widow, who has recently left Daredevil and is developing ever more into a strong independent character in her own right. She's also one of the first women leaders of a Marvel team and also brings to the team both her adoptive father Ivan Petrovich and demons from their past in the Soviet Union. Bankrolling the team is the Angel, fresh out of the X-Men, now that newer members have taken over, heavily enriched through inheritance and ditching his secret identity in favour of being open and free with the world. Also recently having left the X-Men, but maintaining his secret identity for now, is Iceman. The youngest team member, he initially feels he wants to get on with his life and plans on dropping aside as soon as the team is fully established, but finds himself staying around to the point that this plan gets forgotten, especially under a new writer. The team's muscle is provided by Hercules, who proves to be the catalyst around which the group is initially drawn together, and he stays around for the adventure. The most distant is all the five is the Ghost Rider, seen here in the early years of his career when Johnny Blaze had full control over his flaming alter ego, who often feels distrusted and out of place amongst his teammates. Midway through the run the team is joined by Darkstar, a new hero from the Soviet Union with dark energy powers and a mysterious past. The main supporting cast member is Richard Feinster, a recently sacked lecture agent at UCLA who becomes the team's business manager.

The Champions are based in Los Angeles and have as their aims to help the "common man" with more down to earth problems, in contrast to the more global and intergalactic threats faced by other teams. It's a worthy aim, as is setting the series away from the New York norm of the Marvel universe. But in practice the team wind up facing quite a number of established larger than life super-villains and take on global and even universal threats. It looks harder to escape the conventions than it seems.

With very little pre-existing ties to bring the team together the series starts by creating a set of coincidences to get all of them to the campus of UCLA in order to get caught up in the same menace. Iceman is starting studies there and is visited by the Angel whilst Hercules has been appointed a visiting lecturer on the reality behind Greek myths. The Black Widow is applying for a post as a Russian language teacher and the Ghost Rider's alter-ego of Johnny Blaze happens to be motorcycling through the campus. The initial menace is the arrival of Pluto the Greek god of death who seeks to force Hercules and Greek god turned little remembering Atlas era hero turned new lecturer in humanities Venus to marry his allies, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and Ares, god of war, so that they will be unable to battle against Pluto's planned take-over of Olympus. The opening adventure takes up the first three issues with a journey to Olympus itself thrown in and results in the five working together and realising how well they mesh as a team. It's hard to disguise that most superhero teams have had awkward origins precisely because they rely on cautious loner heroes suddenly discovering how well they work together, but the Champions seem especially forced given the ongoing distrust of Ghost Rider and the initial reluctance of Iceman. It's as though they were thrown together by dictat rather than emerging as a natural combination.

The team takes a few more issues before it's fully constituted, complete with its own transport in the form of the Champscraft and a headquarters in a Los Angeles skyscraper. However both get assembled by dodgy contractors and a minor recurring theme are the problems with equipment failure though it doesn't come to the forefront until the epilogue in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. The team's public relations are also a bit of a mess, with their official launch coinciding with an adventure such that only the Angel and Hercules are available for the press conference which gets attacked by the Crimson Dynamo, the Griffin, and the Titanium Man, whilst a photoshoot of the dissolution of the team is an equal damp squib with only the Angel still around when Peter Parker arrives.

When one looks at the foes encountered by the Champions it rapidly becomes clear just how easy it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles including some quite major ones. As well as the initial clash with Pluto there are encounters with a group of Soviet foes including the Titanium Man, a new Crimson Dynamo whose real identity is a shocker for the Black Widow and Ivan, and the Griffin. This group also includes the first appearance of Darkstar but she soon defects. Then there's an encounter with Warlord Kaa of the shadow-people with guest appearances by Hawkeye and the time-displaced Two-Gun Kid. The team's most wide-ranging adventure initially seems to be up against the Stranger but he is in fact looking to save Earth and the real threat comes from Kamo Tharnn (later better known as the Possessor) who seeks to recapture the Runestaff that can save the day. The Avengers appearance sees conflict with the Greek Titan Typhon who forces battle between the two whilst the Iron Man annual brings them up against Modok and AIM. The crossover with Super-Villain Team-Up involves a strange contest between Doctor Doom and Magneto in which the latter must find a way to stop the ruler of Latveria from taking over the world with a special neurogas, forcing the Master of Magnetism to seek out allies, finding them in the form of first the Beast and then the Champions. The final issue sees an attack by the Vanisher, utilising both the Sentinels and the mutants the Blob, Lorelei and Unus the Untouchable. The biggest new foe introduced here is Swarm, a collective sentient hive of bees with the mind and skeleton core of a Nazi scientist. There are a few lesser foes such as new ones like Dr Edward Lansing, a scientist abusing a care home in order to perform experiments, or Rampage, an inventor hurt by the economic downturn who dons an exo-skeleton to initially rob banks. Rampage is the most recurring of the team's foes, being used by the Soviet foes in an action that leaves him paralysed and then coming back for an act of revenge at the very end. There's also an encounter with Stilt-Man that's so forgettable he's left in the hands of the guest-starring Black Goliath whilst the Champions deal with the Stranger's problem.

The series ultimately lasted only seventeen issues and ends on a mini-cliffhanger as the Champions wonder about Darkstar's true nature. But this goes unresolved and the team is unceremoniously disbanded in a flashback in the pages of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man which otherwise serves as a straightforward team-up with the Angel (in fact it's a surprise this story wasn't told in the pages of Marvel-Team-Up) as they face down against the Champions' old foes Rampage and the shoddily constructed building. And that was the end of the Champions' story, bar one very brief reunion many years later.

So is Champions a title that should have had an Essential collected edition? The existence of the Classic reprints is the most obvious argument against but there are certainly other titles in the Essentials that have been collected elsewhere in colour. And the bar for inclusion in the Essentials was not actually that high - several short-lived 1970s series such as Godzilla, Ms. Marvel and Super-Villain Team-Up all qualified for a single Essential volume so not lasting long was clearly no barrier. Nor is the series anywhere near as mediocre as some material included in the Essentials. It may not be the most memorable of titles and the team suffers from feeling like it was assembled to fit arbitrary criteria, but there's a sense of trying and purpose to these tales that hold together reasonably well. A single collected edition would be thin without much obvious extra stuff to include - very maybe the X-Force/Champions '98 annual but that would be a much later pick and otherwise that's pretty much it as a contemporary appearance in Godzilla would be a monster of a rights issue. But there's just about enough already. This is a series that certainly does deserve reappraising as whilst it's not the greatest team title ever it's certainly a lot more credible than the dismissive comments and jokes of later years would suggest. I don't know how the trademark situation would have been an issue, though it clearly didn't stop the Classics doing two volumes. All in all the Champions is a good little series that would certainly have earned a place amongst the Essentials.

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