Friday, 27 February 2015

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4 consists of issues #66 to #81 which concluded the original series plus later appearances in Amazing Spider-Man #274 and New Defenders #145 & the first few pages of #146. After the final issue of Michael Fleisher's run the rest of the series consists of runs written by Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatteis, with artist Bob Budiansky co-plotting a number of issues. Most of the art is by Bob Budiansky with early contributions by Don Perlin and Tom Sutton. The Amazing Spider-Man issue is scripted by Tom DeFalco and drawn by Ron Frenz while the New Defenders issues are written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Don Perlin and Luke McDonnell.

The final volume of the original Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider starts off with the series in a rather traditional fashion but then steadily builds up to deliver a bold conclusion to the run. But before it gets there it goes through a few routines. Michael Fleisher's run ends on a somewhat flat note as the carnival is attacked by a witch's spirit. There's then a fill-in by future writer J.M. DeMatteis in which Johnny fights a group of small town thugs and encounters a woman who has withdrawn from life in bitterness over her daughter's death but comes to help due to the intervention of her daughter's spirit. This mix of wandering through small time thugs and spirits had dominated the series for quite some time now but over the last two runs we get some more developed ideas that also make good use of the supporting cast in the carnival.

Issue #68, which also provides the striking cover to the volume, includes a retelling of the origin for the first time in a while. Told via the device of Johnny going into a church confession booth, it sees a number of minor additions to tidy over some of the more awkward bits such as establishing that Johnny had an interest in the occult before he made his infamous pact or that Roxanne Simpson learned of his promise to his dying adoptive mother and did not think him a coward. And although the being he made his pact with is still called "the Devil", Johnny says "Don't be so shocked, Father. It wasn't the Devil you warn kids about in Sunday School -- though, as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been." It's the first noticeable step away from identifying "that devil-thing" as the traditional Satan from Christianity. However it's not until issue #73 when the Ghost Rider is talking to Johnny within his mind that the name "Mephisto" is first used (overlooking the inventory story from Marvel Super-Heroes that was reprinted in volume 3), presumably as part of a general move to avoid depicting the Devil directly. Overall issue #68 is one of those origin retellings that manages to stay fresh, helped by a framing device as the Ghost Rider stops a priest killer who has come to rob the church, and makes for a strong debut for both Roger Stern and Bob Budiansky, the latter quickly establishing himself as one of the best artists the series has yet seen.

Stern's run may only last six issues but manages to pack a lot in. Following the origin retelling we get another small town tale as Johnny gets caught in the machinations of a romantic triangle of a flirt that leads one of her boyfriends to attack the carnival in a giant earth mover. There's then an attack by a swarm of deformed people who kidnap Jeremy, the carnival's freakish but gentle giant, and yet once their apparent master is overthrown Jeremy finds the attraction of an island where he is normal too good to reject. Another DeMatteis fill-in goes smoothly into the flow as Null the Living Darkness temporarily fuses with a teacher frustrated with his life. But the high point of Stern's run comes in his last two issues as Cork the Clown's son Eliot is revealed to be the Circus of Crime's Clown, trying to put his past behind him but lured back when his old comrades commit acts of sabotage and seriously injure his father. However Eliot is more devious and lures the Circus into a trap - but the Ghost Rider doesn't realise this and attacks the Clown with his hellfire. For the rest of the series Eliot is a hollow shell of himself, a reminder to Johnny of the horror within himself. This is also one of the best uses of the Circus, with the Ringmaster deliberately left in prison allowing the other characters to thrive and show how a talented performer like Eliot got drawn into crime in the first place. Overall Stern's brief period on the book has revitalised it but even better is still to come.

Many comic series have ended abruptly. Some get a rushed final issue or two that seek to provide a quick conclusion at the expense of many loose ends. Others just go out with a routine issue and only a brief acknowledgement of the series's ending in a closing caption or on the letters page. And there are those series that just stop abruptly mid story and no sense of a conclusion at all. Sometimes this would lead to another title being conscripted in order to provide a conclusion but sometimes the whole thing would be left up in the air with the planned final issues confined to file. (The 1990s Ghost Rider series was one of the worst of these with the scheduled final issue not even being printed and the story prepared for it didn't see the light of day for another decade. A generation earlier the original Ms. Marvel was another such case.)

But this Ghost Rider is much luckier. This is a series with a good conclusion that feels as though it was planned out. I'd be surprised if J.M. DeMatteis had actually been signed up for an entire eight issue run to end the series as that seems a rather long commitment but from the outset we get a steady building up of the mythology, both revisiting key elements whilst also adding to them. It's also notable that the series avoids the most obvious conclusion, which would be to have a showdown in Mephisto's realm that sees Johnny freed from the curse and escape to a happily ever after life. That precise story almost happens in issue #76, which is also the first to establish the Ghost Rider as a fully independent entity with a hitherto forgotten past and a name, Zarathos. As a contest between Mephisto and his rebellious underling Asmodeus, Zarathos has to win his freedom from Johnny by surviving a gauntlet in the underworld. However the ending comes with a twist as Johnny and Zarathos's determination to stop each other results in their being remerged as they leave Mephisto's realm. Had they continued to work together they could have peacefully walked through the portal together and arrived back in the world free of each other.

Other issues introduce Centurious, a long-lived man without a soul of his own who devours others', whilst the carnival is given its own climax as owner Ralph Quentin succumbs to the suggestions of Steel Wind, a female cyborg biker acting on behalf of the mysterious Freakmaster. Eventually we learn the Freakmaster is the vengeful son of two freaks abused by Quentin during his early years as a carnival owner. Now the son seeks to liberate freaks and perform drastic surgery on the Quentin carnival to turn the scales. Coming in a period when Johnny has one more than one occasion encountered images of his birth and adoptive parents it's a good contrast between the different ways filial duty has led to vengeance in different forms. Between this story and the Circus of Crime one most of the supporting cast get expanded and given a strong resolution to their stories. One who doesn't though is Cynthia Randolph, the journalist who has been travelling with the carnival for some considerable time as she researches an article about carnival life. The problem is that she seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time on this one project since the carnival has been shown moving between multiple venues and also there are indications that the series is occurring at something close to real time. Towards the end of the run she starts talking about using all her notes to produce a whole book and there are hints that she's also investigating Johnny's secrets, but ultimately nothing comes of it and she joins a long line of supporting characters who drift endlessly through multiple writers.

But the main emphasis in these final issues is on the conflict between Johnny and Zarathos, who has now regained his identity and memories due to the intervention of Nightmare. We learn of the demon's history of being awakened by a tribe and stealing souls that led him to conflict with Mephisto. The latter attacked through agents including a prince, subsequently revealed as Centurious, who resisted the power and led to Mephisto's triumph. Conflict between Johnny and the Ghost Rider has been present throughout much of the series's run but it now develops a new edge as we head to the conclusion. Also adding to the resolution is the return of Roxanne Simpson after a long absence. Now she seeks Johnny's help in dealing with the Sin Eater, a small town evangelical preacher who claims to consume people's sins but is actually stealing their souls for Centurious. In the final issue the Ghost Rider frees the town's people from Centurious's Crystal of Souls, trapping his foe there instead. But this denies Zarathos final vengeance; however the dying Sin Eater offers a way to send Zarathos into the Crystal, freeing Johnny in the process. But Johnny is unaware and resists, fighting to control the body... In a symbolic ending it's the intervention of Roxanne, whose feelings towards Johnny have been mixed due to their long separation, who now reaches out and makes Johnny surrender, allowing Zarathos to triumph and be dispatched to the Crystal. Johnny is now free and he and Roxanne ride off for a life together whilst the Crystal falls into the possession of Mephisto, making Zarathos his slave once more.

As conclusions to long running series go, this is one of the best. Roxanne's saving of Johnny mirrors the way she saved him from Mephisto's control back in the origin. Zarathos's history may be a recent addition but it feels a natural part of the cycle, allowing for a conclusion to an ancient run. And the final page of Johnny and Roxanne biking away with Mephisto holding the Crystal superimposed over them makes for an excellent last shot. The series has gone out on a true high.

As well as the end of the regular series we also get a further adventure for each half of the Ghost Rider. Unusually they're not printed in the original order of appearance, but given the second tale this seems appropriate. The first is Amazing Spider-Man #274, a special overlong issue with no adverts and also a crossover with Secret Wars II. In this story the all-powerful Beyonder is set to destroy the entire multiverse but agrees to a wager with Mephisto to delay this for twenty-four hours if his champion of life can prove mortals are worthy of existence. The Beyonder temporarily releases Zarathos to serve as his agent and get Spider-Man to renounce his sense of responsibility by refusing to prevent the assassination of the Kingpin. As a Spider-Man adventure this may be an usual scenario but it goes right to the heart of the character and his fundamental philosophy of life, also making it one of the best Secret Wars II crossovers. But Zarathos feels very out of character to the point that he didn't need to be used. For most of the protracted torment he is disguised as various dead characters in Spider-Man's life, and then goes for a direct attack in the form of a hooded avenger. Only briefly do we see him in anything like his traditional look (still minus the biker gear) and using his hellfire. Any demon could have filled his role in this story of temptation. It's a rather ignoble return of the demon.

The final material in the volume consists of New Defenders #145 and just the first six pages of #146. Taking place in the aftermath of a major Defenders battle these issues are mainly focused on character and organisational developments in the aftermath. It's in this context that Johnny and Roxanne turn up at the Defenders mansion, having detected the now passed danger, both to visit Johnny's old Champions comrades, Iceman and the Angel, and to ask the latter for a loan. The reason for only including the first six pages of #146 become clear as it's at this point Johnny and Roxanne say their farewells and department, with the Defenders commenting on their good fortune. Despite prominently featuring on #145's cover, Johnny isn't the main focus of these issues and at times the end of the volume feels to be detouring massively into the late era Defenders status quo. Nevertheless they serve as a nice little epilogue to the run. Johnny has now found peace and happiness and this gives a brief glimpse at his happily ever after days.

All in all this volume is a very strong conclusion to a series and character that it's been a delight to discover through the Essentials. The series has had its periods of formula and wandering before but here it takes the elements and enhances them, building up the mythologies of both sides of the character. Lasting well beyond the fads for both horror and motorcycle stunts, the ending of Ghost Rider shows how even the most faddish of concepts can be used for dramatic tales well beyond the fad they feed off. There are careful tweaks to the mythology and an honouring of the series's past that all make for a perfect ending.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Essential X-Men volume 6

Essential X-Men volume 6 comprises Uncanny X-Men #199 to #213 and Annual #9 plus New Mutants #46 and Special Edition #1, X-Factor #9 to #11, Thor #373 to #374 and Power Pack #27. Chris Claremont writes all the X-Men and New Mutants issues, Louise Simonson the X-Factor and Power Pack issues and Walter Simonson the Thor issues. The art on the regular X-Men issues is mainly by John Romita Jr with individual issues by Rick Leonardi, June Brigman, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bret Blevins and Alan Davis with the annual by Arthur Adams. The New Mutants regular edition is drawn by Jackson Guice and the Special Edition by Arthur Adams. The X-Factor issues are drawn by Terry Shoemaker and Walter Simonson, the Power Pack issue by Jon Bogdanove and the Thor issues by Sal Buscema. And yes, there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains material from three different crossovers and they represent almost the full spectrum of types. There's what is basically a crossover between annuals that amounts to just a couple of specials telling a combined story. There's a big event crossover based around a limited series with other titles just dipping in to the story for a short period. And there's a storyline told over several ongoing titles.

The annual is the second half of a crossover with the New Mutants Special Edition. This was originally planned as an annual but turned out to be so long it was instead put out in the deluxe format of the day. This avoided the problems of graphic novels as it wasn't too much more expensive than a regular annual, would be easier to find in later years and also reproduces well in black and white. Unfortunately, this extension now means that the second issue in the volume features a team of characters who are largely unfamiliar to the regular X-Men series and the story takes an age to wade through. Worse still it's placed after a dramatic issue ending as Magneto agrees to go to trial and even though the length of time it takes to set up a trial makes this the natural place for the story (and the trial issue shows the return to Earth) it still feels like an obstacle in the path of the story rather than a crucial step forward. The tale sees Loki allied with the Enchantress to seek revenge on Storm and the X-Men but instead Storm is currently with the holidaying New Mutants and so all are transported to Asgard. The Special Edition naturally focuses on the New Mutants in this different environment but whatever its merits as a New Mutants tale here it's just an extended character study of unfamiliar characters. The X-Men annual brings our regular cast into the story but for the most part they're just exploring Asgard and rescuing the New Mutants from the changes Loki and the Enchantress have brought. Storm is also transformed and given both a hammer and weather powers to take the place of the absent Thor as the new goddess of thunder. It's an intriguing idea but it isn't explored as fully as it could be, with Ororo one of many characters distorted by the magic around them. Other good points include the prospect of the New Mutants staying in Asgard where they are accepted rather than returning to a world that fears and hates them. But ultimately this doesn't really feel like an X-Men story but an intruder from another series. Beyond seeing Rachel publicly adopt the name "Phoenix", to Cyclops's displeasure, this is an entirely forgettable crossover in the way of the main narrative. The art is, however, highly effective, helped by having Arthur Adams draw both parts. There are even some fun pop culture references including Warlock's disguises as the Starship Enterprise and Hägar the Horrible.

Issues #202 & #203 are crossovers with the later stages of Secret Wars II. Crossover issues for this event can be mixed, ranging from the Beyonder merely passing through the events of a regular issue to an incoherent mess as he gets needlessly involved in ongoing storylines to something spectacular when the encounter is used to explore the regular characters in-depth in such unusual circumstances. Here we get a two-part story focused upon Rachel as she sets out to destroy the Beyonder who instead enhances her power and manipulates her into attempting to destroy the whole universe. The parallels with Jean's descent into all-powerful madness are all too clear, especially when Rachel nearly uses the M'Kraan crystal as her main instrument of destruction. Eventually she relents, realising she cannot sacrifice so many lives who are unaware of their situation. It's a strong character study of Rachel and a chance to bring redemption to the legacy of Phoenix at a time when other titles were resurrecting Jean Grey and decoupling her from the power. This is one of the best of the Secret Wars II crossovers.

The "Mutant Massacre" was the first big crossover between various mutant titles and various satellites; the latter consisting of those also written by various mutant writers. It's surprising to find the whole thing collected here (bar a rather detached Daredevil issue) as the X-Men and X-Factor are kept apart throughout this volume and Essential X-Factor volume 1, which was released the same year, only the X-Factor side of the crossover is included. We also get an early example of the mess that can come when crossovers try to show the same even from different angles as a scene where Magneto and X-Factor spot each other outside the Hellfire Club has noticeably different dialogue in each series. The event itself is rather unsatisfying as a group of killers called the Marauders make their way into the Morlocks' tunnels under New York City and start killing the mutant residents. No clear reason is given for the action at this stage and the Marauders are mainly a set of previously unseen mutants, including Arclight, Blockbuster, Harpoon, Malice, Prism, Riptide, Scalphunter and Scrambler. They do, however, also include Vertigo and Sabretooth. The actual victims of the attack are surprisingly less than the story implies, largely amounting to just one established character, Annalee, and a whole bunch of background extras and one-offs created just to be killed off here. All the other established Morlocks are shown escaping, though some may now end up in one new home or another. As an event it's rather tame in the broader impact on the world. But as a character piece this is a desperate time. Few of the heroes who go into the tunnels emerge unscathed and by the story's end Nightcrawler, Colossus and Shadowcat are all incapacitated in one way or another whilst Storm undergoes a crisis of confidence. And the story introduces the conflict between Wolverine and his best-known foe, Sabretooth.

The Wolverine/Sabretooth conflict has become such a core part of both characters that it's extraordinary to realise that both had been around for about a decade before they were first shown fighting together. It seems the problem was that Sabretooth was deemed an Iron Fist villain and thus unavailable to Chris Claremont after he left that character's series, but with Power Man and Iron Fist having come to an end only a few months earlier it was now possible to transfer Sabretooth over to X-Men. The series doesn't waste time in throwing the two foes against each other twice in as many issues and dropping hints about a longstanding enmity between them. Neither character's full history has been detailed, leaving many mysteries to be addressed another time, but it seems we have a conflict between a hero and a distorted reflection of himself. Given the little we do know about Wolverine's past we have perhaps the conflict between a tamed savage and an untamed one, showing the very different route Wolverine could have taken.

Another Wolverine conflict appearing in the X-Men titles for the first time here is that with Lady Deathstrike, previously seen in Alpha Flight and, in her pre-cyborg form of Yuriko, in Daredevil and other titles. However despite Yuriko's body being transformed by Spiral as, presumably, part of her ongoing plans, the issue (#205) feels like an emergency filler, as does its immediate predecessor where Nightcrawler rescues a young woman from Arcade's complex only to discover she's unknowingly the heir to a European throne. She's written out so quickly it's as though plans were made and rapidly ditched.

The issues in this run are from the era when the X-Men titles grew into a clear franchise with the launch of a third title, X-Factor, as well as continuing to feed elements between X-Men and New Mutants. Both throw up a few problems within this volume. Although the New Mutants are usually introduced when they appear it can at times be confusing to know what's going on over in their title that feeds into this one. In particular Magneto seems to spend most of his time as the school's new headmaster over there rather than here, reducing the impact of his now working with his old foes. More problematically Betsy Braddock seems to just appear in the mansion from nowhere and has presumably been imported from the UK Captain Britain stories via the New Mutants. The "Mutant Massacre" sees her demonstrating her telepathic abilities and courage to the point where the very last page in the book shows her being welcomed to the team under the name Psylocke, but it would have been less jarring if there had been some explanation as to where she's come from and what she's doing in the mansion.

The biggest impact in the long term comes from the launch of X-Factor. Issue #201 represents X-Men's contribution to the heavy lifting required to set up that series as Cyclops is written out abruptly. At the same time he has to face now being a father himself but also the loss of his main father figure as Professor X is stuck in deep space with Lilandra and the Starjammers. He feels his family pulling in direction but the team in another, a situation made worse by his apparent lack of interest in keeping in contact with Madelyne whilst he was in Paris for Magneto's trial. Finally Storm forces the issue by challenging Cyclops to a duel for the leadership and surprisingly wins. This proves the impetus for his departure but the whole thing feels forced, trying to simultaneously extract Scott from both the team and his family and support his characterisation in the new series. It makes the newly born baby boy (so far unnamed) suddenly feel surplus to requirements along with Madelyne. The whole thing all feels very sudden and forced, as later interviews have confirmed that X-Factor was created by editorial dictat. Also complicating this series is the publicity campaign in the early issues of X-Factor that inadvertently ramps up anti-mutant tensions.

The other main loose end with Scott concerns Rachel as it's never established if he's deduced that she is his daughter from an alternate timeline. Also, in light of the retcon that set-up X-Factor, it's never made clear just who her mother actually was - the real Jean or the Phoenix entity that impersonated her? Rachel is succumbing to doubts, fears and revenge leading her to go on a rampage that nearly has her killing the villain Selene until Wolverine intervenes and stabs Rachel. It's a shocking moment but seemingly the only way to prevent the Phoenix menace taking off once more. Rachel survives but is alienated from the X-Men and succumbs to the lures of Spiral.

The dark world that Rachel comes from seems to be getting ever closer in many different ways. Early on we see other mutants starting to work for the government as mutant hunters when Mystique negotiates for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to become the government sanctioned agency Freedom Force, complete with provisional pardons for all its members. Meanwhile Magneto's alliance with the X-Men takes some big steps forward as he surrenders himself for trial before an international court and then after the trial is derailed by terrorist attacks he accepts Xavier's request to take his place as headmaster as Xavier goes off into space to be healed from his recent injuries. It's a bold step forward though as noted above Magneto is featured less in the volume than one might expect though he is shown mulling over an offer of a rank within the Hellfire Club as an alliance between the Club and the X-Men; however this doesn't seem to go anywhere here. Nevertheless it's a sign of how the X-Men's world is twisting into an ever-darker environment in which the "baddies" are now either on the "good" side or the side of authority - and the two are not always the same. Meanwhile Professor X, hitherto the guiding light of the team, finds himself accidentally lost in space when the Starjammers' ship is unable to return to Earth.

This is actually quite a bleak run for the series, breaking down traditional assumptions and instead presenting a dark world where sides are now far more blurred and death is ever closer. The reformation of Magneto is seemingly complete and his replacing Xavier is a dramatic step but one that has been carefully built up to. Less well handled are some issues in the middle of the run with the rapid writing out of Cyclops and the starting then stopping of the story of Nightcrawler's new friend. The two big crossovers covered here provide some strong character moments for the series but overall the "Mutant Massacre" is based on a rather thin premise that makes it less than stellar. Also underwhelming for its length is the annual Asgard crossover due to the excessive time devoted to the unfamiliar to here New Mutants at a critical stage in the book. Overall the result is a somewhat mixed run.

Essential X-Men volume 6 - creator labels

Yes this volume has a lot of creators so this is the standard extra post.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4 is made up of issues #30-56 plus Man-Thing (volume 2) #4 and a story from Chamber of Chills #4. The writing is mainly by Roger Stern and Chris Claremont with contributions by Don McGregor, Ralph Macchio, Bill Kunkel, David Michelinie and J.M DeMatteis. The art is mostly by Tom Sutton, Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers with contributions by Ricardo Villamonte, Alan Kupperberg, Kerry Gammill, Paul Smith, Brent Anderson and Michael Golden. The Man-Thing issue is written by Claremont and drawn by Don Perlin whilst the Chamber of Chills story is written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Howard Chaykin. And yes, a separate post is needed for some of the labels. A bonus is a 1981 house ad for the series announcing the creative team as Roger Stern and Frank Miller but the latter doesn't seem to have made it to the title.

As always this is a difficult series to write and generate excitement about. There have been periods in the character's history when a creator has successfully grasped Doctor Strange and managed to make the elements work in such a way to produce a grand tapestry that has a real buzz to it. And there are other periods when the title wanders from writer to writer in a search for something to do. Unfortunately this volume exclusively covers the latter period. Both Roger Stern and Chris Claremont are highly successful writers with much acclaim for their work elsewhere, yet here they join the long list of creators who have tried and failed with the character. It's a wonder that this series lasted so long, especially considering it was bimonthly for the entire of the period covered here (and would stay so for the rest of the title's run, lasting long enough to generate the contents for a fifth volume). Some of the art is quite spectacular, and the reproduction is especially sharp, particularly in reproducing nuanced greys that help to distinguish astral forms from the solid. But the overall narrative is dull and so consequently this is the weakest of all the Doctor Strange Essentials if not one of the dullest in the whole Essential series.

That's not to say there aren't attempts to build something big, starting with a protracted saga involving the Dweller in Darkness that brings in some new lesser villains such as the mystic Alaric and the Dream Weaver, as well as pre-existing foes such as Ningal and D'Spayre. There's also a team-up with Namor the Sub-Mariner and another with the adventurer Murdoch Adams, whose sole previous appearance in Chamber of Chills is reprinted here in order to establish both him and his longstanding foe, the demon Ludi. The ending is awkward with the Dweller declaring victory as he has succeeded in making Doctor Strange doubt his abilities. It might have been followed up on but the arrival of a new writer immediately takes the series in a different direction.

One storyline sees Baron Mordo return as he seeks to destroy the Earth by opening Chaos Gates near the Nexus of All Realities located in the Florida swamps. En route he turns Stephen's old colleague Julian Phyffe into Azrael, a demon with the power to rapidly age people and things to death. The story leads to a crossover with Man-Thing, who sacrifices his chance of being restored by Mordo to human form to save the day and not even Stephen's magic can deliver the deserved reward. Meanwhile Clea and Wong have been captured and taken to another dimension populated by barbarians and wizards where Wong's ancestor's actions have led to the state of this world, including the transformation of the Princess Shialmar into the Shadowqueen. It's a tale of longstanding vengeance that helps to add to Wong's character but it's also a trip into the realm of sword and sorcery long after the fad had passed.

There are some lighter tales as well, including one in which Doctor Strange has to handle a nosy journalist who soon learns the importance of Stephen's work or an encounter with a demon at a highly traditionalist North Carolina university founded by the man who captured a bell that could summon the demon. The result sees a shattering of the traditionalist policies as the students start challenging them. Doctor Strange also teams up with Brother Voodoo to free the latter's brother's spirit from Damballah; the adventure also serves to underline the differences between the two heroes.

The volume sees Clea go through a cycle of uncertainty and doubt to advancement and optimism about her position with Stephen. Their relationship is developing strongly but she is unsure about her effectiveness as a disciple, often needing to be rescued by him. And her doubts are not helped by the return of various women from his past including Victoria Bentley and the previously unseen Madeleine St. Germaine, who under different circumstances might have ended up marrying Stephen years before. More troubling for her is Morganna Blessing, a writer in whom Clea detects great romantic feelings for Stephen. A pair of epics with Baron Mordo, Dormammu and Nightmare establishes that Morganna has been reincarnated multiple times throughout history. Stephen encounters several of Morganna's previous incarnations first as he pursues his foes through time to wartime Britain where Mordo has been manipulated by his grandfather and Dormammu as part of a scheme to bring the latter to Earth in the past. In battling this and encountering Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, Stephen discovers that Morganna is a reincarnation of nurse Lady Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury's wartime girlfriend. Later as Stephen travels back through time in pursuit of a portion of Morganna's soul that has become detached and threatens human history and the realm of Nightmare. In the course of this he encounters further incarnations of Morganna and thus by predestination he creates the bond between them.

Doctor Strange's quest finally ends in Ancient Egypt as he finds himself caught up in the events of the Fantastic Four's visit to the kingdom of Rama-Tut way back in the earliest days of their title. There is no direct interaction between them and Stephen, whose body is captured and so has to spend most of the issue in his invisible astral form, with the result that early Marvel history isn't altered in any way. However Stephen's actions in focusing the sun upon the Thing are now the reason for the latter suddenly reverting to his human form at the oar of a galley, a moment of plot convenience in the original story that could have been simply dismissed as just a typical piece of Silver Age logic. But since neither Ancient Egypt nor Rama-Tut (better known as Kang and Immortus) have been significant forces in Doctor Strange's adventures, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this setting was chosen simply for the opportunity to retcon away Ben's reversion and reduce the perceived silliness of the Silver Age. There is frankly no need to constantly revisit the Silver Age and tinker with the stories in order to explain away the odder plot elements, and it's certainly not a priority for Doctor Strange to be running around clearing up incidents from the Fantastic Four.

Eventually Clea decides that as a being from another dimension she is unsuited to be the disciple of the Sorcerer Supreme and that she should not stand in the way of another's feelings and so opts to return to the Dark Dimension to lead a band of rebels. This throws Stephen into a prolonged despair, moping around his house for a while including time to work off a standby fill-in issue featuring the couple that would otherwise no longer be useable in an emergency. (At seventeen pages it's also now too short as the series, and regular Marvel titles in general, had recently increased to twenty-two story pages, but this allows space for a longer framing sequence than usual.) He is then subject to an attack by D'Spayre that throws him into a succession of ever more bizarre realms in which first he died in the car crash and then he is just a fictional character in comics created by "Ted Tevoski" and "Les Tane". It's a crisis that also serves as an opportunity for Stephen to come to terms with his place in the universe and begin to move on. The final issue in the volume sees him back on form as he faces down three of Mordo's former demons who seek to invade the Sanctum Sanctorum under the guise of being a film crew for an interview conducted by Morganna. We get a recapping of the origin and also the potential starting of something as he and Morganna agree to start as friends and see how things develop.

There are a few other developments to the supporting cast with Wong given an ancestor in the form of Kan, a warrior monk whose actions in defeating the Wizard Kings have led to each successive generation of the family seeking to atone through serving mystics. The household staff is expanded with the introduction of neighbour Sara Wolfe who finds herself stuck in the house for a protracted period and ends up sorting out Stephen's bills, leading to her accepting the job of Business Manager and Social Secretary. She is the great-granddaughter of a Cheyenne shaman but her role in the series is limited to providing personal and business support, with the occasional humorous moment such as her attempts to declares items like Eye of Newt as a tax deductible expense. There is, however, a hint that something could develop between her and Wong in the long run.

Just occasionally there are unusual experiments in storytelling, with issue #53's summation of previous events being delivered by Gnit, an annoying beast that is literally the nightmare of Nightmare, who thus cannot dispose of it whilst his realm is threatened. It's a change from the usual dwelling upon a key character's thoughts and makes for a bit of comedy at an otherwise deeply serious time.

Beyond the inexplicable detour into the events of an old issue of Fantastic Four there are no individual issues in this volume that stand out as real stinkers. But as a whole it's just slow and stilted, showing how difficult it is to make this series exciting. It may avoid overusing the same villains again and again and it's not really retreading old ground but at the same time it all feels like it's going through the motions. All creators have their weaker moments and this is most definitely some of those.

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4 - creator labels

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

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A single Hulk preview

As is becoming a standard, whenever I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and character I take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the Hulk there is just one such issue.

Hulk (volume 1 or 2 *) #8 written by Erik Larsen and drawn by Ron Garney, reprinted in Essential Wolverine volume 7

(* Or 1999 depending on how we're supposed to differentiate these things these days. With the series's title subsequently changing about it's hard to keep track of these things.)

Incredible Hulk was a victim of Marvel's late 1990s obsession with relaunching series from issue #1 for no particular reason. Previous renumberings had been tied to big events such as Heroes Reborn/Return or a restructuring of the Spider-Man titles, but now a title was renumbered for nothing more than a new writer. John Byrne may have then been enjoying a return to glory with Marvel with the Spider-Man relaunch (although fan reaction was not exactly wild) but even he thought his return didn't merit renumbering Incredible Hulk but the only mitigation he could secure was a modification of the title to Hulk (though this was later changed back). Byrne wrote seven issues and one annual (Hulk: Chapter One, perhaps the best proof that his Spider-Man: Chapter One is not the worst origin retelling ever) and then he left the book. This is the first post-Byrne issue with Larsen filling in before a permanent writer took over.

This story is clearly a homage to Wolverine's first appearance as once again a government agency sends him to deal with the Hulk in a rural wilderness. The issue is mainly a protracted battle between the two, with odd moments such as Wolverine actually blinding the Hulk with his claws, but a gamma enhanced healing factor means it doesn't last long, and the Hulk taking a fifteen year old girl as a hostage. During part of the battle Tyrannus takes control of the Hulk's mind, but it appears that this only comes after some of his more out of character moments. This is either a terrible example of story layout or else the Hulk has gone even more savage than usual.

On its own this story feels very much like an issue of Wolverine guest starring the Hulk rather than the other way round, a not unsurprising result given that Larsen was the regular writer on Wolverine at the time. This shows most directly in that the story is basically told from Wolverine's perspective with the Hulk's actions initially an unexplained mystery to the readers, an inversion of the normal style of guest appearances. The issue is also clearly part of Wolverine's 25th anniversary celebrations, coming out the same month as a Marvel Milestone reprint of Incredible Hulk #181 and just before the big anniversary issue. It's understandable that Wolverine would revisit his roots in such a year, but he didn't need to take over the Hulk's series to do so.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Essential Hulk volume 7

Essential Hulk volume 7 contains Incredible Hulk #226 to #248, Annuals #7 to #9 and the crossover Captain America #230. Bonus material consists of a page containing two extracts from the letter column, one an advert for Annual #7 and the other a piece explaining the convoluted writing situation on the crossover that led to the regular Incredible Hulk writer scripting the Captain America issue but not the Incredible Hulk issue. Most of the writing, is by Roger Stern with some issues co-written with variously John Byrne, Peter Gillis, David Michelinie and Steven Grant. The last four issues begin Bill Mantlo's run. Elliot Maggin and Steven Grant each write single issues whilst Doug Moench writes the last annual. The Captain America issue is plotted by Roger McKenzie and scripted by Stern. Most of the regular art plus one annual and the Captain America issue are all by Sal Buscema. Other issues are drawn by John Byrne, Jim Mooney and Carmine Infantino whilst the last annual is by Steve Ditko. And with so many names the creator labels are inevitably in a separate post.

To date this is the most recent Essential volume to be released and, unless the line resumes in the future, it will stand as the very last. So how appropriate is it to hold this accolade? Well it's from the early years of Jim Shooter's editor-in-chiefship, which is arguably the most significant period in Marvel's history between the Silver Age and the twenty-first century. And the volume reprints material from one of the longest running titles featuring one of Marvel's most recognisable characters. Indeed it covers a run that came out at the same time as approximately half the television series, with most of the issue covers unashamedly proclaiming they star "Marvel's TV Sensation!" Until about 2000 this was Marvel's only really sustained success with live action and so a volume featuring either the Hulk at the height of Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno's fame or Wolverine at the height of Hugh Jackman's is an appropriate way to acknowledge Marvel's modern day screen successes. When combined with being from the start of the Shooter era and starring one of the major Marvel characters, this Hulk volume thus feels the natural choice. Of course it's hard to tell if any of this went into the decision making process when selecting this volume but the result is on the surface a highly appropriate volume to go out on. But do the contents meet up to this as well?

There's a sense of progress and development in this volume, seen most obviously around Gamma Base as a succession of developments take the main cast forwards. Thunderbolt Ross succumbs to a nervous breakdown early on and is taken away by Doc Samson who tries to cure the general's condition in a peaceful rural log cabin, but even there they can't escape the news of the Hulk. Meanwhile Betty Ross and Glenn Talbot get divorced, with each taking it in a very different way. Betty feels emboldened and liberated whilst Glenn succumbs to anger, blaming the Hulk for all that has gone wrong in his life. Gamma Base needs a new commanding officer and the natural choice is the now promoted Colonel Talbot. Now there is a very real and personal hatred guiding the military response and no longer do they seek to cure the Hulk but instead to kill him. This eventually leads to Talbot attempting to trap the Hulk forever in Jarella's world by destroying the shrinking device used to reach it but afterwards he is confronted by Betty, Rick and Captain Marvel and forced to face up to what he has become. Elsewhere the Hulk's newest recurring friend is Fred Sloan, a hippie who determines to write a book to tell the world the truth about the Hulk. He is aided by Trish Starr, a supporting cast member brought over from the pages of Defenders who now helps Fred in the research for the book.

The main storyline of the early part of the volume, including the crossover with Captain America, involves the machinations of the criminal business imaginatively entitled the Corporation, first seen in the Jack of Hearts strip in the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Its agents include the new Moonstone, the psychiatrist Dr Karla Sofen who has come from being a moll for Dr Faustus and has now obtained the gemstone from the original Moonstone, granting her powers. Her identity is rumbled early on but otherwise she makes for a strong powerful foe with recurring potential. There aren't too many female villains who've lasted the distance but she could have what it takes. Other agents include US Senator Eugene Stivak who moonlights as "Kligger", the Corporation's controller for the East Coast of the United States, and his West Coast counterpart Curtis Jackson. The Corporation have captured both Jim Wilson and his uncle Sam, aka the Falcon, bringing both the Hulk and Captain America together for a showdown that feels like a natural crossover stemming from both titles rather than one book's storyline forcing itself upon another. The story also features Marvel Man who subsequently hears children dismissing his codename as silly and he changes it to Quasar. The Corporation subsequently try to handle the Hulk by tricking him into a protracted battle with Machine Man in what appears to be a wrap up of storylines from the latter's title after its first cancellation (albeit only for less than a year).

The other big storyline of Stern's run sees the Hulk captured by Goldbug, an old foe of Power Man's, and taken to El Dorado, the legendary mysterious city of gold in the Andes. Here a ruling trio known as "They" try to use the Hulk's power to conquer the world before one of them is revealed as an old enemy seeking to restore his youth. All in all this storyline is rather weak for the number of issues it involves and not the best ending to Stern's run on the title. However he does set up a number of threads that flow into the next run on the series.

The oddest moments in the run come from fill-in issues. There's one where the Hulk is captured by an alien scientist searching for a way to save his starving people and he finds it in the form of the soil under the Hulk's fingernails! Another sees the Hulk battling the Living Colossus in Hollywood where its controller, Aloysius Vault has fallen so far he is now working giving out leaflets in the street.

The last four issues see Bill Mantlo arrive as writer and there's a sense of the title embarking upon something big. In the space available the Hulk has a confrontation with both Talbot and a guest starring Captain Marvel as ol' Greenskin seeks to recover Jarella's body and take it home to her planet for final burial. There he discovers how the world has changed beyond recognition simply because on his previous departure the force of his growth created earthquakes and knocked the planet out of its orbit. In the one part of the world that is still lush and fertile the Hulk tries to bury Jarella but has to face off against the Gardener. These issues all help to tie up some loose ends that have been floating about and give some closure in preparation for what is to come. It's a good sign for the future.

The annuals are a mixed set but none really stands out as an especially memorable piece. #7 is a team-up with the Angel and Iceman, coming not long after the end of the Champions though that series isn't referenced and instead the story is more of a follow-up to events in X-Men as they join the Hulk in battling with the super Sentinel Master Mold, now driven by the mind of Steven Lang. It's an interesting interlude in the lives of Iceman and the Angel, and a possible glimpse at what an actual buddy book teaming up just the two of them might have looked like, but it's really more their story than the Hulk's. It might have worked if the Hulk had had his own on going team-up title (and when better to try that than during the success of his television series?), but as a regular annual it feels like it's been taken over by the guest stars. Annual #8 is better, offering a traditional tale of the Hulk and Bruce finding friendship and peace in a wilderness only for the moment to be rudely interrupted. Here the serpent in the paradise comes in the form of Sasquatch of Alpha Flight. Another scientist whose work with gamma radiation has left him with the ability to change into a large beast, Sasquatch has retained his human personality and approaches the whole situation as though it were a scientific investigation. Unfortunately the Hulk has turned back into Bruce who can only struggle as a giant orange monster tries to bring out the giant green monster, destroying the moment of tranquillity. This time the annual works for the star because the story is driven by him, with the guest star merely a bonus. Annual #9 foregoes guest stars amongst it's cast and instead tells a rather confusing and mundane tale of a group of international criminals engaging in what appears to be a giant game of chess against the Hulk, attacking him at a succession of locations that correspond to chess pieces. The whole thing is so weak and dull that it could easily be consigned to the grand pile of non-essential annuals and forgotten about. However there's a name in the credits that stands out.

Steve Ditko had returned to working for Marvel the previous year, but it was a rather muted return with little trumpeting and Ditko refused to return to his best known creations, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Instead he worked on mainly obscure and/or licensed titles. This annual and an issue of the regular series just missed by this volume are the big exceptions and also one of the very few times Ditko did return to one of the strips he had worked on back in the 1960s. And frankly the art here suggests one of two things. Either Ditko was just doing it for the money and giving the art rather less than his all, or else he was using the Hulk as a proxy to demonstrate why it wasn't such a good idea to have him return to his most famous work. There's just no real excitement to his art here, nor does it feel particularly retro as though it was the mid Sixties once more and Ditko had picked up where he had left off. Instead the art is functional, depicts the contemporary look of the Hulk and would be perfectly satisfactory for an annual drawn by a guest artist who hadn't had a run on the character before. But for a return of one of the giants of Marvel it just doesn't meet expectations. Maybe that was the entire point and Ditko had accepted the assignment to demonstrate the folly of believing that all it takes to produce greatness is to get a big name from the past back on a title and expect the years to fall away. From what is known of Ditko's strongly held beliefs I doubt he would engage in actively sabotaging his work to prove a point. But he may well have been all too aware of his limitations in living up to his own legend and accepted the opportunity to prove the reality of the situation without compromising his position on not going back to his co-creations.

This volume isn't the most spectacular Essential ever but it does hold up reasonably well, showing some good solid storytelling and offering signs of something great to come at the end. The Hulk is not the easiest character to write for and often the series can get stuck in a rut but here there's a sense of direction and purpose that actually develops all the characters going forward. As a general representative of the Essential series this volume contains a lot of the standards such as overlapping two distinct runs on a title as well as including key crossover issues and rather disposable annuals. It's a reasonable representative of the series as a whole and not a bad one to end this particular series of reprints with.

Essential Hulk volume 7 - creator labels

Yes this is a volume with a lot of creators. So here are their labels.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 2

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 2 collects issues #8-14 of the Handbook, covering the entries from Magus (that's the father of Warlock not the future of, erm, the other Warlock) through to Wolverine. Again the main creative forces are Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown.

There's not too much to say about this volume as it's the same format as the first volume and is still working through the main section of current living characters. The Appendixes in each issue are continuing to work their way through the various Other Dimensions. The editorials contain various errata under the heading of "Data Corrections". I don't know how much work it would have involved but it's to the edition's credit that each issue is reprinted as it originally was, mistake warts and all. Also surprisingly retained is the entry on Rom. The "Data Corrections" also explain why some assumed errors are not such as the first in-continuity issue to feature Firestar or whether Galactus's hair colour is known or not. In addition the editorials discuss policy and address some points from letters such as why some of the heights and weights have changed from the original edition, whether the strength levels given settle arguments about who would win in a fight, various details of editorial decisions and also explaining the decision to switch to bi-monthly frequency from issue #15 onwards.

A few entries are surprising in hindsight because some fundamental relationships of a character had yet to be revealed, resulting in histories that now feel like the writer had no idea what was to come. The entry for the Rose presents him as a standard middle ranking crimelord whose identity is unknown, in contrast to what was about to be established. More surprisingly Sabretooth and Wolverine's entries which merely state that they have known each other for a long time but doesn't elaborate. It's a reminder that Sabretooth had been around in comics for nearly a decade before he and Wolverine were first shown clashing.

Some characters are particularly complicated because of wildly differing portrayals and backgrounds that it becomes hard to determine if there is actually one single person involved. The entries for Merlin and Morgan Le Fay are good or bad examples of this. Merlin's entry struggles to reconcile up to three different individuals who were all originally presented as the character from Arthurian legend. Just to add to the problems some portrayals have been based on the popular version of the story generated by literature and screen, whilst others have gone back to the original legends. A similar problem has affected Morgan Le Fay, with some retellings having merged her with Morgause as well as the contradiction between her parentage and her half-faerie heritage, leaving a mess that has been copied into the Marvel stories.

Perhaps the ultimate example comes with the entries for Olympia and the Olympian Gods which are on facing pages. It's clear from both these overviews and the individual entries that the Eternals of Olympia are one of the biggest continuity headaches for Marvel, not least because when their series began it was never intended to be part of the mainstream continuity. The problem is that the series took an alternative approach to mythology by presenting the mainly Greek (but also other mythologies') myths as distortions of the exploits of the Eternals, rather than the Marvel norm of treating them as the straight-up histories of actual beings. When it was determined that the series actually was part of the mainstream Marvel continuity the result was massive confusion about which mythological events had involved the actual Gods and which had involved the Eternals. The various entries try to explain the situation away but it's a recipe for frightful confusion and the Handbook entries are unlikely to be the final word on the matter.

Just as confused are the entries for Thor and the Valkyrie due to attempts to establish them as having unknowingly had the identities of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Norse and Germanic mythology, best known from the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga saga and later from Der Ring des Nibelungen though there are variants within them all. Valkyrie's history had already been a mess due to major retcons but this hidden history just makes it worse and so the entries challenge the reliability of the source, a sentient disembodied eye of Odin.

Not every entry is so complex. The one for the second Spider-Woman reflects the fact that next to nothing about her background had been revealed at this stage and so the history is little more than a synopsis of her few appearances up until publication. The entry for Sunder is similarly hampered and so just offers up a very short paragraph and leaves it at that, doing a little bit to save ink.

My comments on the overall series from the first volume are reproduced below:
Back in the mid 1980s this series served a purpose in expanding on the original edition so quickly even if the timing of its appearance suggests that it was a response to the publication of Who's Who in the DC Universe rather than a pressing need to replace the original so soon. But today the value is very different. Even more than the original edition, I am unconvinced that this series is a particular priority for the Essentials. It comes from a period that isn't especially well served by Essential volumes and the series would have first an update and then yet another edition all within the next decade. Including Update '89 there are a total of four volumes to this edition with some characters having more than one entry. The sheer length of the whole thing may make the Essential format the obvious way to reprint it but it really doesn't need reprinting at all.
Reading this volume has not changed them.
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