Friday, 9 October 2015

What If... Essential Invaders volume 1?

Starting my brief tour of hypothetical Essential volumes this one is fairly easy to envisage. It's the same contents as Invaders Classic: The Complete Collection volume 1

Essential Invaders volume 1 would contain Giant-Size Invaders #1 which launched the team then Invaders #1 to #22 & Annual #1 plus Marvel Premiere #29 to #30 which crossover to introduce the Liberty Legion and, as a bonus, Avengers #71 with a prototype of the idea and an unusual crossover. As a bonus, we can throw in a number of letterspages that contain essays by Roy Thomas on the characters, the inspiration and some of the artists. These issues also make up the contents of Invaders Classic volumes 1 & 2 bar #22, which is in volume 3 (a minor reshuffling to add an extra issue to Complete Collection volume 2). Everything is written by Roy Thomas with Ed Summer providing plot assistance on one issue. The Giant-Size is drawn by Frank Robbins who becomes the main artist on the regular series with individual issues drawn by Rich Buckler and Jim Mooney. One issue reprints an old story from Captain America Comics #22 drawn by Al Avison (no writer is credited) with a new framing sequence added. Two other issues reprint old Sub-Mariner stories from Marvel (Mystery) Comics #1 and #10 by Bill Everett. The annual unites Robbins with Alex Schomburg, Don Rico and Lee Elias. The Marvel Premiere issues are drawn by Don Heck and the Avengers issue is drawn by Sal Buscema. Due to the large number of credits the labels for the reprints are in a separate post.

(In the digital edition at least, Invaders Classic: The Complete Collection volume 1 places all the non-regular issues at the rear despite the Marvel Premiere issues incorporating a crossover and the annual explicitly saying it's set between issues #15 and #16. As part of the What If?ery we can correct that.)

Even without knowledge of Roy Thomas's long championship of the Golden Age heroes it's clear that this was a very special and personal project for him. The series goes monthly with only its second issue, but drops back to bimonthly after the following issue only to go back to monthly publication again with issue #8. A spin-off series was conceived even before the original had launched and was given a crossover with a try-out title to set it up (and given a further boost in the Marvel Two-in-One annual for that year) though it didn't take off. Such a commitment to a series not set in the present day and starring characters whose fates were already set is extraordinary. But this series was riding a wider trend of Second World War nostalgia, which at this time produced a lot of fiction set then such as the first season of the Wonder Woman television series. It also saw old Marvel characters revived but everything was not quite as it came before.

There is a longstanding belief that Marvel has always maintained a single continuity and never turned whole characters, series or runs into alternate universes or made into fiction within fiction or just abandoned them altogether, in contrast to DC. That's only really true if all you read are superhero comics from 1961 onwards. Continuity was much laxer in other corners of Marvel's output, whether that was the original Two-Gun Kid being turned into a fiction the second one read about or the multiple & contradictory retellings of how Millie the Model's career started or the awkward relationship with chronology in many war comics. Or there were various superhero revivals that ignored what had come before, especially when it came to sidekicks or just how long the heroes had been out of action. The Marvel superhero output from 1961 onwards sought to present a coherent whole out of the new material (although it's had its share of continuity errors, retcons and "it was all a dream" moments over the years) but even it has been less than faithful to older and non-superhero material when incorporating the characters. And Invaders maintains this tradition, as explained in an essay by Roy Thomas on the letters page for the initial Giant-Size issue. The Golden Age comics are a source of inspiration and some individual stories will be referenced or reprinted but the overall continuity of the comics, such as it existed in the 1940s, is not going to be adhered to - indeed one issue shows Bucky and Toro devouring a collection of comics and commenting on how their published exploits don't reflect what they've been up to lately although this explanation has to be reinforced to explain how Captain America's secret origin came to be published. Other changes are more mixed - a retelling of Toro's origin generally seeks to add to what was shown in the 1940s but the Destroyer's identity and original published origin are dismissed as theories published in comics. More generally the series doesn't try to navigate periods when the individual heroes were shown based in other countries. Nor are costumes sacrosanct - Namor wears his modern swimming trunks rather than the simpler version he originally wore, which actually becomes a plot point later on, whilst the costumes of some of the Liberty Legion members have been modified from the original or assembled as a composite of various appearances. Overall this approach to continuity allows the new stories to move forward easily, taking the assumption that in the 1970s there would be very few readers who had read the original stories and would be put out by this revisionist approach. In an era of collected editions when some of the Golden Age series are now just as accessible as the Invaders themselves this may not be the best assumption but both sets of stories were written for their time and not since.

The biggest retcon of all is the existence of the team; back in the Golden Age the "Timely"/Marvel heroes didn't form a team until after the Second World War and the All-Winners Squad only managed a couple of (awkwardly numbered) issues. Since the All-Winners Squad had no official origin it wouldn't have stretched things too far to show them as having operated during the war itself but the name is rather lousy and a bolder incarnation was a better approach and doable with a looser regard for 1940s continuity. It also allows for a different approach to the members, keeping the Whizzer and Miss America in the States as part of the Lethal Legion and allowing the Invaders to organically grow additional members. But the core is always the "Big Three" heroes of Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, together with the first two's sidekicks, Bucky and Toro.

These five are the logical starting point as "Timely"'s biggest heroes, with all three adults either revived in the present day or replaced by a newer incarnation. There are strong tensions amongst the group with Namor and the Torch traditional rivals, the Torch feeling somewhat inferior as an android compared to Captain America, Namor harbouring resenting of the surface world but agreeing to ally against the Axis powers and both Bucky and Toro being over-enthusiastic at times. But it's also clear that the five are all willing to work with and trust one another in the heat of danger, reinforcing the team. All of them get their chance to shine though Toro's biggest issue is mainly told in flashback whilst he's being rushed to hospital. The team noticeably lacks a woman at first, an especially surprising omission as women had been part of nearly all the Marvel teams going right back to Miss America in the All-Winners Squad, but this is soon corrected with the introduction of Spitfire, an original British hero who gains powers after a transfusion from the Torch. She also brings a degree of romantic tension with the Torch falling for her but she has eyes only for Captain America who is oblivious to all this. Also added to the team is the British hero Union Jack, initially a peer of the realm and veteran of the First World War but after he's crippled in battle he retires the identity and it's later picked up by another who has previously used the identity of the Destroyer.

But the heroes don't stop there with a second team created via a crossover with Marvel Premiere. The Liberty Legion is comprised of seven lesser known heroes from the Golden Age, assembled when Bucky is the sole Invader to evade capture by the Red Skull. Sending out a radio broadcast he brings together the Patriot, the Whizzer, Miss America, the Red Raven, Jack Frost, the Thin Man and the Blue Diamond. Being more obscure heroes there's greater scope to modify their appearances a little, as detailed in a text piece at the end of the second Marvel Premiere issue. They demonstrate promise in holding their own against the mind controlled Invaders and the Red Skull and are assigned the task of battling enemy agents operating in the United States itself. However the market probably wasn't ready for endless retroactive Second World War adventures and so it's not surprising that they didn't take off in their own title.

As well as the Liberty Legion there's a third team introduced in these pages albeit with inspiration from elsewhere. The Crusaders are a group of six heroes who are based on the Freedom Fighters from DC/Quality Comics. This was part of an unofficial joint homage with the Freedom Fighters around this time also encountering a group called the Crusaders, who were thinly disguised versions of the Invaders. Unlike the earlier Squadron Supreme/Champions of Angor, not as much has been done since with either version as a whole though here one member, Dyna-Mite (based on Doll Man), is used to good effect in the following story. The others are more generic, being given their powers and equipment on a one-off basis by a Nazi agent. The Spirit of '76 is an America hero based on Uncle Sam but the others are all British including Captain Wings (Black Condor), Ghost Girl (Phantom Lady), Thunder Fist (Human Bomb) and Tommy Lighting (the Ray). They serve their purpose but don't make too much of a mark. The only other hero introduced at this stage is the Golem, here incarnated around a Polish Jew trying to survive in Warsaw.

The original tales show a strong degree of research with Frank Robbins proving especially knowledgeable about fighter aircraft and his art has a suitable retro style that captures the slightly awkward feel of the era. The writing is also strong on the big picture, with some missions even tying into real history such as Winston Churchill's early 1942 visit to Canada and the United States. But the devil is in the detail. The portrayal of the UK at war does its best but at times it does slip into clichés with a few too many characters talking in either Cockney or an exaggerated upper class dialect that nobody actually speaks and the attempts to have the Crusaders speaking a range of dialects from across society is an admirable aim but not really achieved. And whilst Americans coming to the UK during the war understandably had more important things to learn than the finer details of aristocratic titles or how to address & refer to the Prime Minister, British characters have no such excuses and it's a surprise to see things like Union Jack saying "Mr Prime Minister" or the Falsworths and their butler's sloppy use of titles. There are other odd moments such as Ghost Girl using the metric system in 1942 (the UK didn't move to adopt it for another generation) though significantly Spitfire doesn't. And George VI wears a rather flamboyant uniform to launch a ship, rather than the more standard naval uniform he often appeared in during the war. Also there's the impression that Thomas isn't too clear about what the Home Guard's actual function was, although in fairness the Home Guard largely carved out its role and forced it upon officialdom.

The series takes the heroes back and forth across the Atlantic and English Channel, fighting a range of Nazi foes and even taking the fight to Hitler's doorstep. There's a partial attempt to build up counterparts, starting with Master Man, a Nazi equivalent of Captain America with less skill and charisma. Namor is countered by U-Man, a renegade Atlantean, whilst Spitfire's counter comes in the form of Warrior Women, a German agent who gains size and strength by accident and whose costume and whip are a Comics Codes Authority compliant version of bondage fetishism - it's amazing how much Marvel got away with her look. There's also the usual assortment of mad scientists like Brain Drain, whose life has been preserved in a mechanical body, or the Blue Bullet, a scientist in a hulking armoured form, or Colonel Dietrich, who shrank Dyna-Mite down, and officers like Colonel Krieghund or Colonel Eisen aka "The Face" after being caught in an explosion. Teutonic mythology supplies the identities for four aliens, Donar, Froh, Loga and Brünnhilde, who get used by Brain Drain as unwilling agents. Much more willing a monster is Baron Blood, a vampire who has had special surgery to partially overcome some of the traditional weaknesses. And there are the biggest Nazi villains of all, the Red Skull and Adolf Hitler. Each seems to be on a private mission to chew as much scenery as possible with Hitler portrayed as a cowardly monster. On top of all this are various enemy agents such as Agent Axis and old foes like the Hyena, the Shark and the Asbestos Lady. The series doesn't pull its punches with a number of important villains and number of lesser troopers killed along the way.

The annual feels very awkward and artificially constructed. As explained in a text feature at the end, it serves two main purposes. One is a pure exercise in nostalgia as three Golden Age artists - Alex Schomburg, Don Rico and Lee Elias - return to characters they drew decades earlier by providing the solo chapters for a traditional format story that separates the main heroes before reuniting them at the end. The other is to jump through a number of hoops to explain the presence and appearance of Cap, Namor and the Torch in Avengers #71 when three of that team, the Vision, Black Panther and Yellowjacket, were transported to Paris 1941 as part of the Grandmaster's tournament with Kang the Conqueror. Although the name "Invaders" was not used, the three 1940s heroes shouted "Okay, Axis, here we come!" and two had been differentiated from their modern appearances by featuring Captain America's original shield, even though he only used it in one issue, and Namor's 1940s swimming trunks. (Such an approach of digging out early differences and using them for longer than they had originally appeared had been standard practice over at DC with the Earth 2 Justice Society of America characters.) Plus this appearance was set before the formation of the Invaders. Now we get a complicated tale of two old and obscure Golden Age villains, the Hyena and the Shark, plus new creation Agent Axis, a strange being who is the lightning induced fusion of German, Italian and Japanese spies, being sent to obtain a sample of the Torch's blood, Cap's shield and Namor's swimming trunks to help the German war effort. This results in Cap and Namor's appearances changing just before all three get taken out of time (the other Invaders are on missions elsewhere) to take part in the Avengers issue and we get the battle from the Invaders' perspective. It's an awkward hybrid of Golden Age nostalgia and strained Bronze Age retroactive continuity and the result as a whole is less than satisfactory.

The reprints are a curious mix. Issue #10 comes as the Invaders rush Lord Falsworth and Jacqueline to hospital and during the flight Captain America thinks about the shadow of the Grim Reaper, causing him to reminisce about an adventure that will have a "basically true" account printed. Cue the reprint of "Captain America battles the Reaper! (The man the law couldn't touch!)" in which he battles a villain called the Reaper who carries a scythe but otherwise there's no death imagery and instead it's a tale of a Nazi agent who rabble rouses people against authority. The moral of the story that we should trust our leaders and not listen to trouble making rabble rousers is one that just hasn't aged well at all and would have been especially hollow in the post-Watergate States. Later on we get reprints of two old Sub-Mariner stories, including his very first appearance (with the eight page version) with both stories helping to explain why he has grievances against the surface world, though it's a little disquieting to see Namor and others of his race (here they are all called "Sub-Mariners") talk of war against the "white men" as though he's an aquatic noble savage.

Is Invaders a title that would have been worth an Essential volume? In principle yes, although the existence of the Classic tradepaperbacks may have led to market saturation though the Complete Collection is practically the colour version of an Essential volume. Overall this is a series with a strong sense of adventure and a determination to not merely weave around the "Timely" Golden Age tales but to take the elements and come up with something strong and lasting. The decision to overwrite the original 1940s continuity, such as it ever actually existed, may not be to everyone's taste but it's generally done to allow greater flexibility in pulling the various teams together, although the decision to rewrite the Destroyer's origin, identity and background and then to merge the character into a new incarnation of another hero feels rather wasteful. But beyond that this is a series that brings to life the writer's passion for the heroes of the 1940s and finds good things to do with them, developing the mythology well beyond what had been there before.

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