Friday, 30 January 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 3

Essential Iron Man volume 3 contains issues #12 to #38 plus a crossover in Daredevil #73. Most of the writing is by Archie Goodwin with later runs by Allyn Brodsky and Gerry Conway, who also writes the Daredevil issue, and one issue by Mimi Gold. The art is by a mixture of George Tuska, Johnny Craig and Don Heck with the Daredevil issue drawn by Gene Colan.

As stretches go, this is a fairly straightforward run which sees the series enter the 1970s and make some attempts to move with the times. The most significant long-term development appears to be Tony's heart operation. By now heart transplant surgery was established in the real world, making Tony's reliance on his chest plate an anomaly, though the surgeon doesn't replace his damaged heart with another but instead uses "synthetically-developed tissue" to rebuild the damaged organ, thus retaining an element of advanced technology. However it's not all plain sailing for Tony as his new heart is at risk of rejection and weakness if he over strains it. This happens near the end of the volume and Tony is forced to once more rely on wearing a chest plate all the time in order to survive. Annoyingly the operation is partially tied in to a crossover with the Avengers but the issue isn't included here even though Iron Man #19 presents it as the answer to readers' confusion.

We get a brief replacement for Tony as Iron Man in the form of Eddie March, a boxer who wears an imitation set of armour in the ring. Tony fears he has been holding back because of his recent heart operation and so opts to retire from the role, little realising that Eddie has retired from boxing because of a blood clot that puts his life at risk. Eddie's stint as Iron Man is short lived and he is soon hospitalised, leading to Tony feeling he must resume the role and accept whatever fate his health brings, encouraged by Eddie's bravery. Eddie is black and at the time making such a replacement was a radical approach, predating the John Stewart Green Lantern by over a year.

The other sign of the times are some issues that try to match the contemporary trend for addressing real life social problems but they often fall back upon individual corruption rather than acknowledging that some problems can't simply be fixed by a hero's intervention. Pollution comes up more than once as Iron Man faces attacks of Tony's plants on islands, but it becomes clear that the problem is in staff, with one manager stirring up local hotheads to protest a plant and cover up embezzlement whilst another is cutting costs at the expense of minimum safety standards which leads to conflict with an angry Sub-Mariner. The tales touch upon the problems of pollution but don't really go to the nub of the conflict between technological advancement to sustain the human population versus the need to keep the planet healthy in the long run. Other tales look at issues such as the longstanding hostility between peoples of different countries, here in the form of Japan and the United States as young people in the former remain hostile to the latter a quarter of a century after the Second World War and one attacks uses a giant robotic lizard based on the legendary beast Zoga. Coming from a country where hostility to Germany still persists after seventy years it's an unfortunately all too familiar tale of old national hatreds.

Another tale has a twist on the standard Latin American dictatorship cliché as here the country in question is ruled by the Overseer, a giant computer. But what's more awkward is the way the story shows Tony telling fleeing revolutionaries that raising an army in the States will not be as easy as expected as "there are those who would not bear arms for any cause!", an implicit acknowledgement of the impact of the Vietnam War on popular attitudes to overseas intervention. Yet rather than admit that the world isn't so black and white, Iron Man instead takes at face value the claims of the revolutionaries and charges in to overthrow the dictator, rather than stopping to ask just what the facts of the situation actually are, and whether simply charging in and overthrowing the existing regime will bring enlightened progress to the country as opposed to opening up an era of turbulent chaos. The situation in the story could have made for a strong exploration of the conflict between the traditional black and white values whereby knights in shining armour could go on a simple rampage in response to the first damsel in distress they heard from, against a more nuanced society that had seen the impact of such an approach and was now demanding restraint in solving other countries' problems no matter the suffering. But instead Iron Man carries on in the old fashioned way and it's only after his attack has begun that we get what could have been the turning point in a nuanced exploration when a child is shot down by one of the Overseer's machines. This would not be the last time that Iron Man writers would try to follow the approach of DC's Green Lantern but implement it badly.

Better handled is a tale of racial conflict in the inner cities as Tony finds a community centre project he is sponsoring is fiercely resisted locally, with many objecting to what they feel is just charity to ease white guilt and line the pockets of white owned businesses rather than real measures that would help economic development and enable the community to become self-sufficient. The situation is complication by corruption in local government, with the scheme having been pushed through by a councillor who heads both the estate and construction firms involved, and by the intervention of the aptly named Firebrand, a rabble rousing superpowered would be revolutionary. Though the tale is a little heavy handed it does well in challenging head on the assumption that outsiders can simply impose facilities on a community as a solution to its problems rather than engaging with them to find the best way forward.

In more traditional territory the series continues to add a few long lasting villains, ranging from yet another Crimson Dynamo to the rather more original the Controller, who has developed technology to control other human beings and an exo skeleton to overcome the weaknesses of his body caused by disease and accidents. He makes for a strong counterpart to Iron Man, the type of villain most heroes need. The Night Phantom is an early example of a villain empowered by Voodoo, a man embittered against technology after an accident crippled him. The Cold War also pops up in the form of the Spymaster and his Espionage Elite of five aides, who invade Stark Industries to steal industrial secrets. Elsewhere various aliens send agents to Earth with the most notable being the robot Ramrod. There's also a succession of crimelords who use the title Jonah. A more shocking foe comes in the form of a Life-Model Decoy that takes on a life of its own and ousts Tony not just from his company but from his entire life, armour and all, leading to the memorable cover image. This in turn leads to the oddity of Tony openly wearing the original Iron Man armour in order to take down the impostor but without those around him realising he is the true Iron Man. Another visual conflict between Iron Man and Tony comes as the Mercenary disguises himself as Tony in order to reach and kill his target, only to be shot by Vincent Sandhurst, Janice Cord's attorney now seeking vengeance on Stark. Foes from other series include the Red Ghost from the Fantastic Four, who is now accompanied by a new set of super apes, Lucifer from the X-Men, the Collector from the Avengers, and the Zodiac cartel, also from the Avengers. The latter appear in the crossover with Daredevil which may have been a try-out piece to see if the proposed merger of the two titles would work but it's all too clear that the two don't go together well with the resulting story a confused mess that doesn't really feel at home in either series.

Tony's romantic life has its ups and downs. When kidnapped by businessman Mordecai Midas he falls for Madame Masque whom he discovers is a disfigured Whitney Frost, but this causes tensions with Jasper Sitwell who had also fallen for Whitney. Tony tries to hide the news of her return after she disappears once more, but Jasper's detective skills discover what has happened and track her down to an island where a scientist is trying to turn her into a mate for her son who has been transformed into a modern day Minotaur. In the end she chooses Jasper over Tony but sets out on her own to prove herself first. Tony's main romantic interest is Janice Cord, owner of a rival firm, but he worries that both his heart and his life as Iron Man mean that nothing can ever come of it. Matters are complicated by her firm's inventor Alex Niven who turns out to be both protege and successor to the original Crimson Dynamo. Having a character be a rival to the hero both in and out of costume is a good move but it's short-lived as the Titanium Man shows up to deal with a defector. In the subsequent battle both Iron Man and the Crimson Dynamo misinterpret the other's actions towards Janice and she is killed by blasts from the Titanium Man, leaving Tony in mourning and Alex swearing vengeance on Iron Man. Meanwhile the end of the volume sees the introduction of Marianne Rodgers, an old flame whom Tony dates once more.

The supporting cast is also expanded with the introduction of scientist Kevin O'Brian, who has the dialogue of a dreadfully cliched Irishman but who nevertheless proves an effective and loyal employee to the point that Tony trusts him first with running the company during a leave of absence and then with his identity when he needs someone to reinstall the chestplate pace maker.

Overall this volume tries to update the series both in its approach to real world problems and also in updating Tony's heart condition, but in both cases it soon backs off and returns to the status quo ante of the series, as though the previous developments had been risks too far. Otherwise the main advances come in developing more of the supporting cast and villains and telling the usual mix of tales. There are few really bad stories apart from the awkward one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to the Overseer tale but otherwise this volume is standard but not spectacular.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Inferno - the crossovers

Time for a quick guide to a significant crossover event that isn't fully collected in the Essentials. It has, however, appeared in two collected hardcover editions that are Omnibuses in all but name.

Inferno was published in the autumn of 1988 and was focused on the X-family of titles, including the limited series X-Terminators, but spread out into almost every other Marvel title based in and around New York as demons ran rampant in the city which was steadily magically transformed into a nightmare.

The collected editions are structured around the core and extended parts of the storyline so I've once again turned to The (Almost) Complete Marvel Crossover Guide for an order. Note that not every issue carries the "Inferno" banner and I've included some of the build-up as well:
X-Factor Annual #4 includes a back-up strip where two government agents investigate what happened; it is reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 4.

As you'll see this is a lot of issues. After three years of ever larger crossovers growing out of the X-Men titles someone realised this couldn't go on indefinitely.

So the following year instead saw an even larger crossover growing out of the Avengers titles.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 3

Essential X-Factor volume 3 contains issues #36 to #50 & Annual #3 plus Uncanny X-Men #242 & #243 which form part of the "Inferno" crossover. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Mister Sinister and Madelyne Prior. All the X-Factor issues are written by Louise Simonson bar one that is both written and drawn by Kieron Dwyer whilst Chris Claremont writes the Uncanny X-Men issues. The art is by a mixture of Walter Simonson, Arthur Adams, and Paul Smith with individual issues by Dwyer, Rob Liefeld, Rich Buckler and Terry Shoemaker, who also does the main story in the annual. A back up in the annual is drawn by Tom Artis. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Marc Silvestri.

The first item in this collection is the annual and its inclusion here is a bit of a mess. It features the Beast before his furry form returned, and was originally released between issues #30 & #31. It probably should have been included in the previous volume but it's not immediately obvious where it should have been placed; a sign of the problems annuals often bring even when, as here, they're scripted by the series's regular writer. The lead story is the first part of "The Evolutionary War", a story that ran in just about all the Marvel annuals in 1988. However it's fairly easy to read this part in isolation from the rest with the separate strands of X-Factor battling agents of the High Evolutionary called the Purifiers who seek to exterminate the Subterranean race as part of cleansing the Earth before accelerated evolution whilst the Evolutionary himself is attacked by Apocalypse with a battle over their different approaches of intelligent design against natural selection as the way forward for the human race. To be frank this is a so-so X-Factor story but a very uninteresting start to a large and expensive crossover. The back up chapter detailing the history of the High Evolutionary has not been included but it's no real loss. What is included though is a short piece in which the various kids on Ship learn about the history of the X-Factor team from their earliest days in the X-Men through to their recent surge of popularity. With the exception of the Beast's form this little story comes at a very handy moment as it recaps some key points including Jean's replacement by the Phoenix and Scott's marriage to Jean's lookalike Madelyne Pryor. This is perfect timing for what comes next.

"Inferno" was the big Marvel crossover of late 1988 and X-Factor has a strong claim to be the primary title, having been building up the storylines over several issues and containing some of the key conflicts. But oddly the storyline can feel a little confused upon entering issue #36, partially because the build-up in the preceding three issues was included in volume 2, originally released almost three years earlier, but also because some of the storyline was set up in the X-Terminators limited series which isn't included here despite starring the youngsters X-Factor have rescued. Perhaps this is because X-Terminators leads more directly into New Mutants, with the former team soon merging into the latter. The two Uncanny X-Men issues plus four X-Factor issues had been previously reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 8 but some duplication with crossovers is unavoidable and here the Uncanny X-Men issues have been kept to the minimum of only those once the two teams actually meet up.

Once it gets past the general scenes of Manhattan being transformed by demons, the story reaches some of its main focuses. This is not some casual event crossover where some enemy comes from out of the blue only to get defeated and everything goes back to normal. Instead, there are several big developments and some long awaited moments. The biggest one is the first meeting between X-Factor and the X-Men, which now seems amazing considering X-Factor had by this stage been around for three years and this is no less than the third crossover between the mutant titles that both have taken part in. But the meeting isn't smooth as there's a lot of distrust between the two, in part because of X-Factor's historic role of posing as mutant hunters but also because of the presence of Scott's estranged wife Madelyne Prior, who has become the Goblin Queen.

This is very much the story of Scott and Jean and Madelyne as several years' worth of mysteries are finally addressed and further steps are taken to retroactively clean up some of the mess created when the series was launched. We now learn just what Madelyne is and how she has been just a gene substitute for Mr Sinister and a Jean substitute for Scott. The confrontation between husband and wife is ugly, with it becoming all too clear which woman Scott prefers. But this is not a popular choice with his brother Alex turning on him in fury. In real life many a divorce and/or custody case has seen the relatives of one partner/parent support the other and Alex's fury is believable as he hammers home how Scott has gone against his vows and abandoned his wife. For Jean there's a horror of once again having a replacement going mad with great power, and worse still the Phoenix force has made Madelyne even more a part of her than before. At the heart of all this is a child, called "Christopher" by his father and "Nathan" by his mother, who is to be sacrificed both for revenge on his father but also to create a bridge between Earth and the realm of Limbo.

The demon side of "Inferno" isn't as interesting, with the lead demon N'Astirh a fairly confused character though it's possible that much of his story is in parts of the crossover not included here. Nor is it too clear just what the realm of Limbo actually is, since the name has been used several times by Marvel and also has the connotations of the religious realm. All of this provides a backdrop and some nice visuals, as well as the return to the team of Warren, who adopts the name of Archangel in the epilogue issue.

But the real showdown is less about demons than about Scott's past as we discover just how much he has been manipulated over the years by Mr Sinister, right from his days in the orphanage. We get an explanation for just where Scott got his first ruby quartz spectacles that could contain his force beams but more pertinently how Madelyne was created and manipulated. Wisely the story doesn't directly retcon Scott leaving Madelyne as merely the manipulation of Mr Sinister, but he was responsible for her and Nathan Christopher's subsequent disappearance that prevented reconciliation. Instead Scott's redemption comes variously in saving his son from Madelyne and then in facing down Sinister in an act of catharsis. It's a dramatic conclusion that does its best to resolve some of the chaos and baggage caused by both Jean's death and return. The abandonment at the start of the series is simply too big a problem to resolve but otherwise there's a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Issue #40 is a minor milestone as the first ever Marvel work by Rob Liefeld. It may lack some of what would become his regular themes but it's got several features that have recurred in his work including awkward poses such as Cyclops appearing to have two left arms, the Beast walking at an angle where he's almost falling over, many characters doing strange things with their feet as though they're dancing instructors giving a frozen demonstration and numerous marks and lines on faces. Fortunately the main villain is one that it's hard to draw badly, as Nanny is just an egg with a voice and limbs. It's not the wildest piece of work but it's a style that's quite different from before and it's amazing that Liefeld went on to enjoy the sales and success that he did. He's far from the only reason the comics industry developed the way it did over the next several years (and I often feel that some of the criticisms of him are really proxies for dislike of industry developments and corporate decisions for which he was the easiest target) but it's an unfortunate development nonetheless.

"Inferno" may have forced itself into numerous other titles but the reverse is resisted here when it comes to "Acts of Vengeance" with issues #49 & #50 making it clear their primary purpose is to finish off the title's own "Judgement War" storyline and confining the crossover to two standalone pages in the former issue and a six page back up in the latter. This may be one of the earliest signs of "writing for the trade", and indeed I'm informed that the Acts of Vengeance Crossovers Omnibus edition only reprints these eight pages rather than the full issues, though here it's the crossover rather than the book's own plots that are confined to the easy to remove pages. It almost feels as though Apocalypse is expressing not only his own thoughts but those of an irritated Louise Simonson (though one could reasonably point out that she wrote all the core "Inferno" issues bar the Uncanny X-Men ones and that crossover had also intruded on an awful lot of titles). Apocalypse observes the events and comments on how some of the villains are bafflingly "out of character" and actually calls the whole thing an "absurdity" and "already a failure" as he rather bluntly declines an invitation to join the leadership of the villains' alliance. Looking at the basic premise of the crossover is probably best left to a review of a more central part of the event, but it's hard to deny that it requires some basic leaps in goals by villains. For a genocidal tyrant who seeks to advance the strongest in the human race to team up with a group including, amongst others, a New York crimelord would be a very strange move even though having its main villain in the alliance's leadership would have raised the profile of X-Factor as a series and couldn't have been more illogical than having a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal working together. Still the encounter means the Essential volume is bookended by Apocalypse engaged in both a physical and philosophical battle with the lead villain in a major crossover.

Nestled between "Inferno" and "Judgement War" is a curious two-parter which introduces Alchemy, a mutant created by the winner of a contest. As the name implies Alchemy has a Midas Touch and a curious group called Troll Associates who plan to use him to destroy the British economy by creating so much gold as to make it worthless and then return the country to the days of magic. It's odd to encounter traditional monsters engaged in economic warfare and the story is also bizarre for the way Jean insists on taking Christopher, a mere baby, on the mission with them despite the all too clear danger.

Midway through "Judgement War" the series confesses to missing its deadlines and runs a fill-in from file, complete with an extra page at the start to allow for a random flashback to completely unrelated events. We get a solo tale of Archangel as he reflects on how life is now so much more complicated and it's no longer so easy to tell good from evil, whilst a priest is running a home for young mutants but uses the "Children of Heaven" for street crime. It's a so-so piece, as most fill-ins are, but during the original publication it must have been frustrating to readers for such a long take to be stretched out even further by interruptions. (The cover dates can confuse as steps were taken to reduce them from four months ahead of publication to two, with a couple of issues cover dated "Mid" month to absorb the difference.)

As for "Judgement War" itself, there are some good ideas but the emphasis is all wrong and the storyline way too long. In the course of the story we learn the true origin of Ship and discover that the events of "Inferno" have left the personalities of both Madelyne and the Phoenix in Jean's mind. But these elements are very much side-shows in a tale of an unnamed planet full of mutants where a technologically advanced but culturally medieval society has settled into a rigid structure of castes including the Chosen, the Rejects and the Dualers, and those who reject it all, the Beginagains. X-Factor, Christopher and Ship are scattered across the various factions and find themselves caught in power struggles and burdening revolutions, whilst the Celestials are coming to judge whether or not the civilisation and world is worthy of continued existence. Frankly the planet's internal politics are boring and attempts to draw an analogy with the situation on Earth is limited. Of much more interest is the struggle within Jean as the Madelyne and Phoenix personalities struggle to assert themselves, whilst Jean gets a chance to atone for the Phoenix's greatest crime, yet this is underplayed. Overall this storyline feels stretched out of all proportion and probably could have been cut by at least two parts. This may not have resulted in an especially good "Acts of Vengeance" crossover but it would certainly have cut some of the tedium at the end of the volume.

This is another volume that mixes the strong and the weak. The best stuff is at the front with "Inferno" proving a strong resolution to a number of long running threads as well as a dramatic showdown in its own right. The rest of the volume is mixed with a number of odd moments but no especially awful moments even if the main storyline runs on for too long.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4 carries issues #64 to #83 and Annuals #5 & #6. All the issues are by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, credited on the actual issues as co-producing them and credited on the contents page with Lee as "Writer" and Kirby as "Co-Plotter & Penciller". The stability is further enhanced by everything bar a couple of back-up features in the first annual being inked by Joe Sinnott. Bonus material consists of several reproductions of art boards, mainly from issue #66, showing Kirby's margin notes for Lee. There's also an early version of the cover for issue #65.

By this stage the series has firmly settled into a clear pattern, though this volume shows that the complete status quo is not set in stone and developments for the characters can and do happen rather than sinking into a lazy inertia of just rehashing all that has come before. There's also a continuation in adding elements to the series's mythology as the Four's adventures continue to reveal new worlds, both in outer and inner space, and encounter new beings. The creative streak doesn't let up but there are also attempts to consolidate the existing extended character base and prepare some of them for their own series.

Annual #5 feels less like a special adventure of the Fantastic Four and more of a try-out for several other characters as the main focus is on the Inhumans and the Black Panther as they team up to battle new villain the Psycho-Man, with some help from Johnny and Ben but Reed and the just announced pregnant Sue stay behind. Adding to the Inhumans' exposure, they also dominate the gallery of pin-ups. The annual also contains a short Silver Surfer solo adventure plus a brief comedy piece showing Lee and Kirby larking around in the office as they try to come up with ideas for plots. With all three properties getting greater exposure in the near future, whether in solo series, back-ups in another title or just as a member of the Avengers, it's difficult to deny the annual was a success as a try-out piece but as a Fantastic Four tale it's severely lacking, particularly as it was the big special for the year.

Fortunately there's a return to form with annual #6 as it goes back to the core characters, with Reed, Ben and Johnny undertaking a desperate quest into the Negative Zone to find the thing necessary to save both Sue and the baby as she approaches labour. It's the first appearance of Annihilus and for once the story doesn't simply end with the obtaining of the item - in this case his cosmic control rod - but there's then a desperate race to shake off their pursuers and get out of the Negative Zone. The end of the story sees the birth of a son, later to be named Franklin, and the whole issue feels like a special occasion for the team and deserving of an extra large issue on a par with Sue and Reed's wedding in an earlier annual.

It is now impossible to discuss the birth of any child to the regulars in a comic without addressing the great debate about whether or not this damages the characters for the long run by making them seem "aged" and "difficult to relate to". By the logic of the naysayers the birth of Franklin would constitute a point at which the series becomes too remote from its readers. Frankly this approach to the Four is total nonsense. Right from the outset we've had not so much a team as a genuine family with loyalty and affection for one another mixed in with dysfunctionality. Reed has always been the mature father figure of the team and Sue has always long combined youth and vigour with a maternal approach to the others. That she is Johnny's older sister rather than his mother makes no real difference. For Reed and Sue to have a child is simply an extension of the existing family structure and as long as there are ways to combine parental responsibilities with work then it makes no difference. When you're reading the adventures of a scientist who excels at everything and has a rubber body to boot, a woman who can turn invisible and project forcefields, a teenager who can set his body on fire without hurting himself and a man trapped in the form of a rock monster, there's already a bit of suspension of disbelief. The idea that the birth of a child can damage the title and is a make or break affair for the audience is clearly ludicrous. In the long term there's the question of just how fast Franklin can be allowed to grow but there are any number of ways a fantasy series can handle this should it become a problem.

Where the pregnancy and birth does have a notable impact is in sidelining Sue even more than usual, with Reed becoming ever more protective and refusing to take her on journeys at times. Although there is concern for the baby it also plays into the prevalent sexism at the time. It's not until issue #81, after Franklin has been born, that the logical solution is found with Crystal stepping in to take Sue's place for the time being. She has to prove herself first but more than does so in battle with the Wizard. It's the first time there's been any change in the membership of the Four and there's a risk that such an approach will eventually lead to the group being treated as a team with a revolving door membership rather than a family with clear personal bonds between them. But Crystal has been hanging around the Baxter Building for pretty much the entire volume and is in a strong relationship with Johnny so she feels the natural choice to stand in for Sue. However it's a pity that before this issue she has been sidelined much of the time, rarely contributing to action or showing what she's made of.

More generally the series maintains its creative streak but it does so in some surprising ways. Issues #64 & #65 introduce the Kree, but instead of a visit to a grand empire or an encounter with part of an invasion force we instead meet them via a giant robotic soldier that has long been buried on Earth to monitor the situation but it has lost all contact with its army, like the real-life Japanese soldiers who stayed active on Pacific islands decades after the end of the Second World War. But the Kree empire is still around and the Four's defeat of the sentry attracts the Kree law enforcement officer Ronan the Accuser, with the Supreme Intelligence also making a first appearance. This is an odd way to introduce what would go on to be one of the main intergalactic powers in the Marvel universe but it also feels somewhat appropriate for a team of adventurers to stumble across one of the empire's outstretched tentacles instead of finding the core homeworld in all its glory.

Also introduced through a steady build-up is the artificial being known only as "Him" (later renamed as Adam Warlock), and his creators, the scientists grouped together as the Enclave. There's a real sense of build-up to the opening of the cocoon to reveal what the scientists hope will be the ultimate in human evolution. Somewhat undermining this is their inability to see Him due to the bright light and the odd solution of kidnapping Alicia in the hope that a blind sculptor will be able to get close enough to touch Him and then create a sculpture so the scientists can see what he looks like. Another artificial being to debut here is the Mad Thinker's android, which proves impossible to defeat outright and is instead exiled to the Negative Zone. But the real focus of these issues is upon Ben who has been brainwashed by the Thinker into turning on the Four. The Thinker's other artificial creation, the Android Man, also debuts in a Ben focused story as Reed once again finds a potion to cure him of being the Thing, but Ben discovers many, including Alicia, actually preferred his monstrous form and he undoes the transformation to save his friends even though he knows this change will be permanent. Less interesting an artificial being is the Tomazooma robot, impersonating a Native American living totem so that an oil company can drive Wyatt Wingfoot's people off their land.

Most of the stories are escapist adventure, rarely stopping to make overt comments about the state of the world. An exception comes when the Silver Surfer briefly decides that the problems humanity face could be overcome if they had to deal with a common enemy and sets out to be that enemy, embarking on a wave of destruction. It's a rare case of using the series as a mouthpiece for the creators and a forerunner of the commentary that would come in heavy doses in the Surfer's own series. But it also demonstrates the naivety of turning to quick fix solutions or outsiders imagining they can simply walk into a place with problems and put it all to rights. The Four and a missile eventually convince the Surfer of the error of his ways by showing there is good in humanity and that he was mad to even try and fix them all by his attacks on them. In his second appearance in this volume he returns to a more traditional role of conflict with Galactus as the world eater seeks to reclaim his herald, who in turn flees into the Microverse to escape and enjoy the freedom of a whole universe.

There are some odd moments in this run, particularly issue #73 which serves as the climax of a storyline in Daredevil in which Doctor Doom has briefly swapped bodies with Ol' Hornhead. Daredevil has now recovered his body but seeks help from the Fantastic Four who assume he's still Doom, leading to a battle with Spider-Man and Thor thrown in for good measure. The whole thing is resolved when Sue turns up and declares she's seen Doom live on television, as though a master of duplicate robots couldn't be in two places at once. All in all this is an odd issue that feels like an intruder on the series, crossing over with Daredevil for the sheer heck of it.

Despite the occasional misfire in general this volume shows the title still continuing to produce a strong mixture of fantastic and very personal adventures. Compared to earlier volumes there may not be many stories that have achieved a great deal of fame but nevertheless there is still a good level of creativity and development, both adding new elements to the series and enhancing the ones that have worked. We also get bold steps such as Sue's pregnancy and Crystal eventually taking her place on the team, showing that the status quo is not set in stone. This volume represents a series still at the top of its game and no let up in Lee and Kirby's astonishingly long run.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Essential Avengers volume 4

Essential Avengers volume 4 is made up of issues #69 to #97 plus the crossover issue Incredible Hulk #140. Everything is scripted by Roy Thomas with both parts of the Hulk crossover plotted by Harlan Ellison. Most of the art is by a mixture of Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Neal Adams with a couple off issues by Frank Giacoia. The Incredible Hulk issue is drawn by Herb Trimpe.

Throughout this volume there are a number of stories that seek to address contemporary social issues and it's not hard to see this as a response to the critical acclaim of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series which was running in the same period. But at times these tales can feel like they're missing the mark. There's a tale of Native Americans being driven from their land by a ruthless businessman that may tell a fast story with a non-cliched portrayal but it feels like a typical retread. There's another encounter with the Sons of the Serpent but once again punches are pulled with the revelation that the Supreme Serpent is in fact two television chat show hosts, one white and one black, who want just "power for ourselves". Would it have been so wrong to have an actual home grown racist as the leader and show the horror needs no outside manipulation? And the Black Panther, the hero-king who rules a proud African kingdom, is reduced to taking a day job as an inner city schoolteacher concerned with urban crime, as though black superheroes can do little else. But the most cringe-worthy moment comes in issue #83 with the Liberators. This all-female team, consisting of the Wasp, the Scarlet Witch, the Black Widow and Medusa, has been assembled by the Valkyrie to free women. But the Valkyrie turns out to be the Enchantress in disguise, trying to steal a device that will restore her full power. And what is her motivation for launching a war on men? She has been deserted by the Executioner who went off with another woman. And in the following issue she is now working with another man and all talk of a war on men has now been forgotten. So she's become a radical feminist for want of a man and then abandoned feminism upon finding one. How could this get any worse? And it's a pity as earlier on the Enchantress had highlighted some very real sexism and grievances when recruiting (although the backstory she gave to her Valkyrie identity is false). The intentions may be all well and good but the execution is repeatedly clumsy and so it's no surprise these issues have largely been forgotten.

Two other influences from DC can be seen with the appearance of other heroes, although one group is a far more obvious homage than the other. Early on the Avengers are confronted by the villainous Squadron Sinister and it is easy to spot their origins as a copyright friendly pastiche of the Justice League of America, right down to the individual counterparts - Hyperion is Superman, Nighthawk is Batman, Dr Spectrum is Green Lantern and the Whizzer is the Flash. Later on issue #85 sees the Avengers visit a parallel world where the heroes are the Squadron Supreme. Shown here are the good versions of the four Sinister members alongside four further heroes who again are clear counterparts to Justice Leaguers - Lady Lark is Black Canary, Tom Thumb is the Atom, Hawkeye is Green Arrow and the American Eagle is Hawkman. This was no casual rip-off but one half of a deliberate crossover in the days before inter-company crossovers with the official versions of heroes were possible. (Over at DC at about the same time the Justice League of America encountered the Assemblers, a team equally made up of counterparts to the rival company's heroes, but this team has had a rather lower profile than the Squadron Supreme.) It's also appropriate to encounter a team of DC derived heroes in a parallel universe and it's an elegant way to meet fan demands decades before a direct Avengers/JLA crossover could be produced. However the identical names and appearances of the two Squadrons is just asking for trouble, as shown by the cover copy for issue #85 which proclaims the return of the Squadron Sinister but is actually the first appearance of the Squadron Supreme.

More surprising is the way issue #97 declares a whole load of Golden Age heroes to have been nothing but fictional characters depicted in comics. Again this is the same method previously reported used by DC (with the subsequent addition that the comics were based on real events in a parallel universe), but whereas the Distinguished Competition's use of that method predated any actual revivals, Marvel had by this stage already revived Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America and, albeit only briefly, the android Human Torch. It's therefore a surprise to find the Angel, Blazing Skull, the Fin, the Patriot and the original Vision confined to fiction within fiction and brought to life briefly by the mental powers of Rick Jones in issue #97. The surprise only grows when remembering that the writer is Roy Thomas, who could normally be found integrating the Golden Age heroes into modern continuity. Was this a case of editorial interference blocking an attempt to revive the original characters, as seems to have happened with the introduction of the modern Vision? Still whatever the rationale we get to enjoy the sight of several of Marvel's Golden Age heroes in battle with the Kree some years before the launch of the Invaders.

At 640 pages this is one of the longest of all Essential volumes and at the time it was first published it was the record holder. Consequently one could query the reasons for including the Incredible Hulk issue as although it (naturally) follows up on the Hulk after Avengers #88 it doesn't really feature the Avengers that much. It's probably better that we're left wondering why it was included rather than why it wasn't but overall this crossover is really just a Hulk story that happened to detour into the pages of the Avengers instead of a true meeting of the two titles. Both parts of the crossover are plotted by Harlan Ellison, and he gets named on both covers, but rather than some grand masterpiece from a big name science fiction writer lured over to comics, this instead feels like a piece of stunt casting, either to attract in science fiction fans or just to lend Ellison's credibility to comics. The result is a rather mundane Avengers fighting the monster called Psyklop who is seeking the power of first the Hulk and then the Dark Gods. It may feature the first time the Hulk visits Jarella's world, but as an Avengers story it's ultimately forgettable.

The same cannot be said for the final storyline in this volume which is the main reason for its length. Rather than end the volume on a cliffhanger (although there was a gap of only fifteen months before the next volume was published), we get the entirety of the Kree-Skrull War story from issues #89 through to #97, made even slightly longer by issue #93 being 34 pages long as part of Marvel's brief 1971 attempt to expand the page size and price of their comics before retreating to the regular size (though not quite the previous price). This is one of the first full-length epic stories that Marvel produced, with a wide range of settings and characters. We get guest appearances by not only the familiar Kree and Skrull figures such as Ronan the Accuser, the Supreme Intelligence and the Super Skrull, but also by obscure ones such as the Skrulls who impersonated the Fantastic Four way back when the aliens first appeared or the first robotic Kree sentry to visit Earth. We get the return of Rick Jones, who discovers how even a simple orphan carries within him the ultimate potential of humanity, and his alter ego Captain Marvel. There are battles with S.H.I.E.L.D., a trip to the Inhumans' Great Refuge to overthrow Maximus and restore Black Bolt, encounters with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and even a journey through the body of the Vision (although as this is in the extra long issue it feels suspiciously like gratuitous padding), before a climax in space in which aid comes from the mental powers held by all humans and Rick's memories of the old comics he enjoyed at his orphanage. There's also a dig at McCarthyism some two decades after the event in the form of H. Warren Craddock, head of the Alien Activities Commission. Was this just a really really late piece of satire or was it a more contemporary response to the presidency of Richard Nixon, who had first achieved national fame through his work on the Un-American Activities Commission? All in all this is a saga that sets out to combine disparate elements in a strong ongoing narrative that also carries some good character moments. Of particular note are the growing feelings between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, with the android's desperation to save her coming to the fore.

The rest of the volume may seem tame by comparison but there are further additions to the series character base. The only new recruit to the Avengers is the Black Knight but he's barely seen, a sign that the Avengers membership has grown to the point where it's getting out of hand. Some relief on numbers comes from Yellowjacket's decision to drop out of superheroing and focus on scientific research with the Wasp following him, whilst the Black Panther ultimately decides to return to Wakanda and take up ruling full time upon the death of his regent. Otherwise the cast of the Avengers is large and allows for a mix of line-ups in individual issues with nearly all the members seen so far appearing at one point or another. There's also a new hero introduced in the form of Red Wolf, accompanied by the wolf Lobo, but they only appear in a single story. As noted above there's a sort of first appearance by the Valkyrie as a disguise by the Enchantress but the name and appearance of the disguise have gone on to greater things with the Defenders. The only notable supporting character to be introduced is Monica Lynne, who moves from a singing career to become a social worker before accompanying the Black Panther to Wakanda.

The series continues to add villains with several making their first appearances in these pages. In the immediate term the big introduction is the full Zodiac cartel, following on from the appearances of Scorpio in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now we get to meet Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. They appear multiple teams and even briefly conquer New York in their second appearance, making for a strong threat. Also recurring is Arkon, the ruler of another world who seeks both a way to restore his world's light and a mate, settling on the Scarlet Witch. Posing a threat of a very different kind is Cornelius van Lunt, one of the earliest examples in comics of a corporate criminal who uses both sharp business practices and hired crime to achieve his ends. There's also another group of existing foes brought together, this time under the name of the Lethal Legion and consisting of the Grim Reaper, the Man-Ape, Power Man, the Swordsman and the Living Laser. For the longer term the biggest arrival is the Grandmaster, who here challenges Kang to a game of living chess with the Avengers' as Kang's pieces. As a grand and all-powerful strategist the Grandmaster presents strong potential for the long run.

Overall this is a mixed run on the title with some unfortunate misfires in attempts to do social relevance tales balance by a very strong climax and some good additions to the mythology although the dismissive approach to some of the Golden Age characters is surprising. There are clear signs of character development, especially with the Vision, and plenty of action at all levels. It's easy to see why the Kree-Skrull War has become one of the most celebrated of all Avengers storylines and it makes for an excellent ending to the volume that more than justifies its extra large size.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Essential Thor volume 3

Essential Thor volume 3 reprints issues #137-166, bar an Inhumans back-up strip that ran in issue #146 to #152. Everything is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The stability is further enhanced by all but one issue being inked by Vince Colletta.

It's the format of the series which demonstrates the most variation. There's a final epic "Tales of Asgard" back-up feature which gives way to an Inhumans back-up strip then the second half of the volume sees issue length stories set in the present day. This is a series that has found a firm purpose as a mixture of Norse mythology and cosmic space adventure, with most time on Earth mainly serving as interludes between the big events. Thor is almost completely bereft of a human supporting cast with Jane Foster only making a single cameo to show she is getting on with her life and now has total amnesia of Thor. The other outstanding human element is also dealt with in a respectful way that confirms what the series has evolved into.

Throughout the volume Thor retains his identity of Donald Blake and his medical practice, although it's increasingly a sideshow. The two identities are by now clearly established as the same being but curiously when he's in the form of Thor he seems to lack Blake's medical knowledge. It's understandable that Thor's large hands and huge strength would not be suitable for delicate surgery, but less so that he would not know as much. And we finally get a resolution to the longest running uncertainty in the series so far. Issues #158 & #159 finally address the confusion about the main character - how can he be both the original Norse God of thunder with a life stretching back over many centuries and yet also a mortal man who discovered the hammer and gained the body and power of Thor? As he says, "If I am truly Thor... then who is the real Donald Blake? And if I am Don Blake... Where was Thor before I took his identity??" The first issue incorporates a reprint of Journey into Mystery #83, exposing the contradiction starkly as Donald Blake ponders the matter himself. (It also neglects to reproduce the original credits, a failing the Essential's contents page repeats) Then in issue #159 we get "The Answer at Last!" (the story's title) and learn how Donald Blake has been Thor all along. In order to teach his son humility, Odin had forcibly changed him into mortal form and given him both amnesia and a physical disability so that he would know weakness and learn "that any handicap can be endured... and overcome!" and sent him to Earth where he arrived in mortal & lame form on the first day of medical school with artificial memories. The hammer was disguised as a stick in a cave to await being found once humility had been learned.

This is one of the first overt retcons in Marvel history, with the original state of affairs addressed head on and explained away, rather than being simply ignored or flashbacks altering the original events. It may well have been driven by incessant questions on the letterspage and/or by the first generation of fans now working for Marvel, but in general it represents an elegant attempt to reconcile the original idea of a man acquiring the power of a being from mythology with the subsequent shift to depicting the adventures of the actual being. No retcon is ever perfect and this one doesn't explain how Blake could suddenly appear in adulthood with no recorded past, or why, if Thor is deemed to have learnt his lesson by now, he still has the Blake alter ego. But the biggest omission is any explanation as to why it took time for Thor's original personality and memory to come to the fore. Nevertheless the retcon has stuck to the point that any latter day readers are surprised to discover Thor and Blake were ever depicted any differently. I am aware of only one attempt to retcon this again, from the mid 1990s, and that was so convoluted and ultimately inconsequential that, as far as I am aware, it has been generally ignored and forgotten about every since the writer in question left the series. (If you don't know the details it's probably best to keep it that way.) But here we get Lee and Kirby putting almost a finishing touch on the character's background, overcoming the confusion from the earliest days of the series when they weren't in full control of it.

Thor's identity may have been cleared up but he retains his medical practice and loyalty to Earth, going so far as to defy an order from Odin to return to Asgard. At this stage Odin is acting somewhat out of character, being more power obsessed and angry than normal, and he opts to punish Thor once more by stripping him of all power bar his strength. The same subsequently happens to Loki, Sif and Balder. The power is eventually restored but in the meantime we see Thor trying to survive on his wits, unable to even revert to the form of Blake, and eventually taking a job with the Circus of Crime as a strongman who pretends to be none other than Thor himself. This leads to his being hypnotised into taking part in a robbery. This, even more than his Blake form, truly humbles Thor but also shows there is more to him than his powers though he does eventually regain them.

The series continues to thrust forwards with a good mix of existing and new elements. The early issues contain the final (for now) "Tales of Asgard" feature focusing on Hogun of the Warriors Three as his village is attacked by the sorcerer Mogul of the Mystic Mountain, leading to an epic journey as Hogun seeks vengeance. Successive issues show the group battling their way through a variety of monsters as they search for Mogul, with Volstagg's laziness and cowardice often on display along with excuses for it. However he also demonstrates his skills when he secures the Rod of Wondrous Wizard Power and uses it to deal with both beasts and Mogul's army. There is debate between Hogun and the others over how much help he should accept from them in his own duty to his people but ultimately the four journey together. This story is generally okay in collected form but five pages a month for nine months must have been tedious for contemporary readers and it's easy to understand why the feature is dropped for the time being.

The main strip doesn't hold back on character creation with this run including the first appearances of various trolls, of whom Ulik is the most notable. Others seen from the Troll kingdom are the ruler, Geirrodur, and his slave, Orikal, a mysterious being from another realm who is held captive to power the trolls. There are the mysterious Enchanters, made up of the trio Magnir, Forsung and Brona, who rule another dimension and now seek to conquer Asgard. In one brief adventure Thor battles longstanding Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror and his new weapon, the Growing Man. Another sees Thor take on both the crime boss Slugger Sykes and the ever adapting android Replicus, who feels like another variant on the Mad Thinker's Android and the Super Adaptoid. Asgard comes under attack from the Trolls and the Enchanters but the biggest threat comes in the form of Mangog, the gestalt embodiment of a race defeated long ago by Odin. Mangog is a giant monster that seems impossible to stop as it rampages towards Asgard to seize the Odinsword and cause Ragnarok, the ultimate day of destruction, making for a desperate struggle to stop him.

Loki's schemes and improvisations are responsible for a number of battles including with pre-existing foes such as the Super Skrull but also new ones. In order to regain his own powers Loki turns to Karnilla but at the time when she sends the power Loki's helmet has been taken by a burglar known as the Wrecker and he gets empowered instead. Armed with a now enchanted crowbar, the Wrecker takes on the role of the ordinary mortal empowered by Asgardian magic just before the retcon removes the last possibility that Thor himself falls into this category. Still the Wrecker makes for a good physical foe.

The last few issues see Thor in deep space, this time helping the Rigellians to confront Galactus who in turn is going after Ego the Living Planet. This leads to a confrontation between two very different kinds of gods, with a dramatic showdown. Later Odin shows part of the origin of Galactus. Following this there's another confrontation with Pluto and finally a battle with the mysterious "Him" (later renamed Adam Warlock), created by the Enclave, now seeking a mate and settling on Sif. Thor defeats him but is now succumbing to the Warrior Madness and has to seek redemption. The volume ends with Thor about to embark on a deep space expedition to achieve this.

In some of the adventures Thor is fighting solo but at times he has regular aid from variously the Rigellian Recorder, Balder and Sif. Balder is built up as a good loyal ally of Thor but faces his own problems when Karnilla falls for him and goes courting in her own unique way, even turning to the sorceress Haag to enchant him. But it's Sif who's given the strongest attention. Time and again she is shown as a strong warrior and though she's not a physical match for Thor she can more than hold her own. The affection between the two is strong though it brings its own dangers when Karnilla tricks Sif's spirit into occupying the Destroyer to help Thor only for the armour to overwhelm her, take control and nearly kill him. Later she takes a blast intended for Thor and nearly dies, but Blake's skill as a surgeon saves her. The two work well together and she is a far more suitable companion for Thor in this style of adventure than Jane Foster.

Although there are some problematic pages, in general the reproduction in this volume is quite good and in particular reproduces Vince Colletta's inks sympathetically. Also of note are some of the later issues where in certain shots space and/or Ego appear to be represented by photographs of either paintings or sculptures - it's a bit difficult to tell in black and white but the actual pages have reproduced quite well without the mix of line drawings and photographs turning into the mess seen in other volumes.

As a whole this volume shows a strong coherence and direction. With the totally consistent presence of Kirby and Lee this volume feels like the definitive take on Thor. Over the three volumes so far they have tried and tested a variety of elements and refined them to the point where it's now clear what works. At the same time they have either explained away or steadily phased out some of the more problematic elements. The result is now a solid run showing the series at its height.
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