Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2

Continuing the proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2 contains issues #13 to #25, continuing to retell old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson apart from one issue by Peter David, and drawn by Keith Pollard, Ron Frenz, James Fry, Al Milgrom, Tom Morgan, Steve Buccellatto, Bruce Solotoff, Phil Lord, Steve Geiger, José Marzan Jr, Hector Collazo and Keith Williams.

This volume continues the practice of summarising key storylines from Marvel's Silver Age, aided by reproducing many panels and using text captions and the occasional piece of new art to accelerate the retellings. Once again the origins are enhanced by later additions to the mythology such as Daredevil's debut including his history with Elektra and Stick as well as the original story. There's also some good tying together of stories to show their impact, such as the Crime-Master launching his attempt to take over the New York underworld at a time when the Fantastic Four are powerless and in hiding, Thor has departed for Asgard for the Trial of the Gods and Captain America is still making his way home through the South American jungle following his final showdown with Baron Zemo. Such a placing goes well beyond a mere wish to have a reading order and helps to show the Marvel Universe as a more integrated whole than it was realised at the time.

The choice of which characters to devote space to retelling their first adventures is a surprise, such as the many pages given over to the debut of Diablo compared to single panels each for the likes of the Grey Gargoyle, Kraven and the Owl's first outings. The cliffhangers to each issue aim to end on a dramatic point midway through a key story but occasionally the story in question is underwhelming or the foe has rather declined in stature since the 1960s. Issue #20 ends with the Frightful Four invading the Baxter Building and the final panel is the Wizard holding the Human Torch hostage. It's a reminder that the Wizard has rather plummeted off the A-List of foes since the Silver Age, his participation in the Prime Movers of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover not withstanding, making the ending rather underwhelming.

Issue #22 sees a change of approach to the series (and a new editor - Adam S. Balustein succeeding Danny Fingeroth) and is devoted to Peter Parker and Mary Jane's relationship, as the Spider-Man wedding was close. So we see the whole course of it from Aunt May's first matchmaking through other girlfriends and the failed first proposal up to the wedding day, all in one issue. It's a different pace from before and also notable for being about the first place to suggest Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man right from the outset. But there's also an odd moment at the end as a page from the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one shot is reproduced to try to support the two being made for each other, yet it shows Peter crossing the lines of friendship before realising his mistake - almost as though it was intended to support the two not being together. Whilst it's nice to see an entire issue devoted to the background to one of the biggest events in Spider-Man's life, it would have been much better off as a stand-alone special rather than slotted into the regular series.

The remaining few issues see the saga focus in on specific events for the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer, rather than the broad approach of showing all the key events across the whole universe. Did the new approach kill the series or was it an unsuccessful attempt to save it? Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory change of course and all the momentum of the first twenty-one issues is lost as we get a narrow focus on the wedding of Reed and Sue, the discovery of the Inhumans and then the coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer with their origins retold from later issues, showing in particular how the Surfer's past influenced the feelings Alicia reawakened within him. It's unfortunate as the wedding annual was the first significant time almost the entire Marvel universe was caught up in the same story and where it fits into the various series's continuities is something that isn't particularly well explained. We get the origins of Galactus and the Silver Surfer but surprisingly not the Inhumans.

The defeat of Galactus is presented as "a turning point in the history of the cosmos... [the] day humanity's representatives first proved themselves more than equal to the task of mastering the great challenges set them by the cosmos", and thus the point on which to end the series with a three page coda describing some significant events to come, ranging from Spider-Man's famous triumph in the remains of Doctor Octopus's headquarters to the battle between Dormammu and Eternity through to the Dark Phoenix Saga. There's a bit of a "and they triumphed and lived happily ever after" to some of the summaries such as Thor facing off against a witch doctor with the last of the Norn Stones or Namor rescuing Dorma and recovering his throne. Finally the Watcher reveals himself as the narrator of the whole series

Overall this volume shows the misfortune of the change of direction, abandoning the integrated tapestry of the Marvel universe in favour of retelling individual stories with additional backstories added in. That said, the latter approach could be a way to bring new readers up to speed on key characters, without having to subject them to expensive trade paperbacks (in the days before the Essentials but even with them it can take a lot of time and money to build up a complete run and the Epic series's habit of jumping about isn't conducive to chronology) or lengthy and controversial retellings. In the early 1990s this approach was followed with a couple of mini-series including Spider-Man Saga and Wolverine Saga, and there have been some more recent one shots in a similar format.

But that would be individual histories and not really worthy of the title "The Official History of the Marvel Universe" which should have been restricted to a total history across the line rather than segmented sections. The original broad concept of the series is a good one though in an era when so many of the original comics are easily available in reprint form it can now feel a little overlong in its retellings. But even with the issues available the big picture is lacking and this series set out to provide it. It's a pity that got abandoned when it did but the first two thirds of this volume maintain the original aims and good standards.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Omitted material: Wolverine '99 Annual

Absent from Essential Wolverine volume 7 is Wolverine '99 annual. The reason for this one's absence is even less clear, though the lead story has since been reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion, for which it supplies the cover. Both stories are written by Marc Andreyko with the lead drawn by Walter McDaniel whilst the back-up is drawn by Massimliano Frezzato.

Once again we have an omission of an annual with two stories, one of which features Deadpool and has been since reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion (which also uses the cover on the book as a whole) whilst the whole issue is available digitally. Again it's a mystery as to why this was left out when there doesn't seem to be a rights barrier to publication.

The first story sees Wolverine investigating an author of were-wolf fiction who seems more acquainted with the subject material than he should be. But Deadpool has been hired to kill the author and to complicate matters further a live were-wolf attacks. The back-up tale sees Wolverine in the middle of a poker game with other heroes when the beer runs out and he has to get some more, only to run into street thieves, ninjas from the Hand and a Dragon in quick succession, all while Nick Fury's flying car is vulnerable.

This annual feels like it was thrown together from inventory material in spite of a reference to an encounter between Kitty Pryde and Deadpool in the latter's series. The first story is standard team-up fare as the leads meet, fight and then find themselves forced to team up against a bigger threat, though throughout there remains a tension as Deadpool may still carry out his contract killing. But otherwise this is a fairly mundane encounter with a forgettable foe and even Deadpool's dialogue is on less than sparkling form. The back-up strip is in a curious grey tone style and it appears to have been prepared for an abandoned black and white special. It's a strange little tale that runs the gauntlet through all the traditional types of Wolverine stories but doesn't get much further than some comedic jokes. As a piece of back-up fluff it's okay for what it is, nothing more.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 7

Essential Wolverine volume 7 contains issues #129 to #148 plus the crossover issue Hulk #8. Surprisingly absent is the 1999 annual. Most of the volume, including the Hulk issue, is written by Erik Larsen, at times collaborating with Eric Stephenson or Fabian Nicieza. Early issues are by Todd Dezago with one script by Brian K. Vaughan. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu and Jeff Matsuda, with contributions by Cary Nord, Ron Jensen, Mike Miller and Roger Cruz, with the Hulk issue by Ron Garney.

This is the Essential volume with the most recent material of all, covering the series from the late 1990s. But it also covers Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary and contains a good number of hat-tips to his previous adventures in a suitably nostalgic mode. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans for Wolverine can clash with wider plans for the X-Men family of titles, as we will come to see.

The first few issues show a series in the traditional problem as it looks for an ongoing writer and marks time with a series of rather forgettable fill-in issues. The main theme here is of monsters in one form or another, with Wolverine facing off against the latest incarnation of the Wendigo, an alien spider in the Himalayas and a wife beater. There's a brief nod to the recent marriage to the Viper when she persuades Wolverine to go the Himalayas after a Hydra expedition failed but otherwise this is a plot point that will soon be forgotten. Issue #131 originally had a notorious error when "killer" was accidentally lettered as "kike" but this edition use the corrected version rapidly put out instead. Issue #132 shows that not all monsters are creatures with the return of the Higgins family who live near the X-Men's mansion; when the mother is found dead and the daughter badly injured Wolverine goes in pursuit of the father who has fled, taking the son with him. It's a good focus as Wolverine contemplates how his prior demonstration of his humanity by not killing the father has led to this, but there's a twist at the end. But overall the book has been floundering for ages with no clear permanent writer and that has to change.

That change and more comes with the arrival of Erik Larsen. Right from the outset there's a real sense of a determination to do things differently from the traditional style, with ninjas and the Far East both notably absent during the run. Instead there's a move towards more traditional elements of the Marvel universe, including an issue when it seems just about every second tier hero available in New York goes after Wolverine in quick succession. The idea of Wolverine confronting Galactus seems absurd but it manages to work in its own way. That's not to say there aren't appearances by various X-Men or Alpha Flight in the process but overall we get a different and strong take on the series that seeks to put the hero through different situations from before.

The run kicks off with the six-part saga "The Great Escape" although notably only the first issue carries the banner on the cover. It sees a steadily expanding scope, beginning in a bar with Wolverine and Warbird (formerly Ms. Marvel and Binary and have I left any identities out?) and then steadily expanding through "Too many guest stars to count!" before taking Wolverine out into space to a prison planet run by the Collector and containing both the Starjammers and Torgo, a rarely seen robot from the pages of Fantastic Four. He's aided in all this by Aria, an alien who can possess others' bodies and makes the classic mistake of acting first to grab help rather than seeking to persuade it first but despite this Wolverine comes anyway. However, there's a twist as Wolverine discovers the purpose of Prison World only after he destroys its defences and reveals its location, leading to the oncoming destruction. There's a strong theme of failing to consider and explain throughout the arc with the Collector, Aria and Wolverine all arrogantly thinking they know best and not discussing it with others, resulting in tragic consequences. The battle with Galactus is as one-sided as you'd expect but Wolverine isn't under any illusion that he can do anything beyond buying a little time. His bone claws prove ineffective at a critical moment, reinforcing the need to regain his adamantium and overall it's a much humbler Wolverine who returns to Earth after realising his blundering and weaknesses have had major consequences. This is a very different type of tale from the normal Wolverine saga but it never loses sight of the character regardless of the situation he's in. It bodes well for the rest of the run.

Unfortunately there's not too much space available to do a great deal before the series has to cover two big events that will take in the last third or so of the volume. So in the three issues before that we get a team-up with Cable against the geneticist Arnim Zola, then a team-up with Nightcrawler to battle first some androids and then Cardiac and Solo, two less well remembered mercenaries, and finally a team-up with Jubilee to battle Donald Pierce, with some help from the mysterious Khyber. Spot the pattern? It's as though the title is turning into a Wolverine team-up series without explicitly acknowledging this is where it's going, though at least most of the guest stars and villains so far have a history with Wolverine. But team-up titles are rarely the place to really develop the lead character due to the ever-changing supporting case and demands from other series. And Khyber is poorly explained, appearing to be a cyborg version of Wolverine without any acknowledgement at all of the similar Albert but this isn't explicitly stated; nor does he appear to be a foreshadow of what is to come. As a whole these stories are mixed and not really offering too much excitement or a sense of the way forward for the series. But first it's going to look back a bit.

With Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary falling in 1999 it was inevitable that there'd be some revisiting although to its credit the series doesn't explicitly ram home the point until the main anniversary issue itself. In the meantime the series starts with a two part team-up with Alpha Flight, which primarily serves to undo all manner of changes made over the years, resurrecting characters, killing off duplications, ending relationships and demoting members such that by the end the story has re-established the line-up of the original team plus Puck. Given Wolverine's early history with Alpha Flight it's understandable that such big changes could take place here but a lot of these changes are implemented in a very sweeping manner with a number of the lesser characters written out in a flashback that explains their demotion to Beta Flight, leaving the main story to focus on Wolverine and the restored original team invading an AIM base to rescue Guardian where they battle with Modok and also Kane from the Weapon X programme. It falls to a back-up story in the second issue to sort out some of the detail though not every aspect of latter day Alpha Flight continuity is addressed, leaving this as one of the more blundering retcons ever carried out.

Wolverine's first appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk gets a latter-day revisit in a two-part crossover with that series in its renumbered and (temporarily) renamed form. We get a flashback story set immediately before the first appearance as the Leader kidnapped Wolverine, Hercules and Karkas of the Eternals as part of a plan to use them against the Hulk. It's a suitably nostalgic piece that shows us Wolverine in his first days in the original costume without simply retelling his debut story. This helps set the scene for a modern day rematch as Wolverine once again gets sent by a government agency to tackle the Hulk in the Canadian wilderness, leading to a fierce fight in which both combatants seem somewhat out of character even before Tyrannus takes over the Hulk's mind. Wolverine is especially brutal, temporarily blinding the Hulk with his claws in order to level the odds, as though the battle is a rejoinder to the many past clashes between the two.

And then comes the big anniversary issue but the whole thing is deflected by being caught up in the lead in to the next big X-Men crossover "Apocalypse: The Twelve". Worse still issue #145 opens as though it's flashing back to events in other titles that contain one of the most significant revelations going. Once again this series sees a major event in the lead character's life take place elsewhere. And we get a mind-numbing retcon that can be summed up as "Skrulls? Yeeesh!"

It's revealed that for a number of issues (but just how many of this series is unclear as the revelations are anchored to recent events in X-Men) that Wolverine has been a prisoner of Apocalypse who has transformed him into his new Horseman Death, including restoring the adamantium skeleton and claws by taking the metal from Sabretooth. Wolverine's long-time nemesis is seemingly dispatched in a quick flashback, in order to demonstrate the ruthlessness of Logan's conditioned form. Meanwhile Wolverine has in the interim been impersonated by a Skrull who has been conditioned to subconsciously act and think like Wolverine in every way. The whole thing feels nonsensical and unplanned. It seems to be a way to reinforce Apocalypse as a longer term planner with enough time to carry out the changes but Apocalypse has captured and conditioned Horsemen quickly before so it's more likely a way to paper over any perceived out of character behaviour and negate recent stories. It's a pity as whatever their weaknesses the Skrull retcon just doesn't add anything or even allow the series to side-step a particular status quo. The conditioned Wolverine battles first the Hulk and then the X-Men before steadily overcoming his conditioning; however Archangel in turn seems to be undergoing a relapse and this leads to further conflict. Overall "Apocalypse: The Twelve" this is a convoluted crossover to understand from just the Wolverine issues alone and it feels like a messy intruder on the series despite leaving restoring Wolverine to his traditional form.

But the final issue is even worse for understanding what's going on. "Ages of Apocalypse" seems to be a glimpse of either a horrid alternate future or an alternate reality that has arisen out of the previous crossover but it's not too clear. Nevertheless we get a good little tale of the New Fantastic Four, comprising Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Ghost Rider as they battle against Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Blastaar, the Harpy and Arnim Zola in this dark world. It's a good take on a particular team who have usually been more popular in theory than in practice. But in the bigger scale of things this is a confusing issue to understand because of the way the crossovers have stomped all over the regular series at the end of the volume.

This is a volume that tries to find a new direction for the series rather than endlessly rehashing all the traditional elements of Wolverine and shows some imagination in throwing him into unusual environments. It also does its best to honour the character's history for his anniversary. However at times the series seems to be overdoing the restoration of older status quos and the whole thing is rather blown off course by the X-Men crossovers at the end along with the silly Skrull revelation. As a result this is a volume that all but explicitly says that large chunks of it don't matter which is a pity as it showed the series starting to get its act back together when left to its own devices.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1

It's time a proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1 contains issues #1 to #12 of The Marvel Saga: The Official History of the Marvel Universe, a special series launched in 1985. It retells many old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson and drawn by Ron Frenz, Tom Morgan, Al Milgrom, Walter Simonson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Geiger, Keith Pollard and John Buscema. Additionally each introductory page and rear "Classic Cover Gallery" are included.

Marvel and DC seem to have spent a lot of the 1980s either copying one another's projects or experiencing simultaneous ideas. Both did their first major company wide events in that decade (Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths). Both produced special encyclopaedic series devoted to detailing their characters (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who). Beyond the comics themselves, both licensed their characters for a series of action figures. And both produced their first "official histories", limited series which sought to bring order to the turbulent chaos of the continuity of their early years. DC's effort was the History of the DC Universe. Marvel's was The Marvel Saga. Who had the idea first in each of these cases isn't always clear as sometimes one company would learn of the other's plans and rush a project through to reach the market first. And I'm sure many of these ideas had originally been suggested by fans – "A story bringing all the heroes together" or "A guide to the heroes and villains" or "A history of the universe" are all pretty straightforward ideas and probably featured in fanzines long before the publishers took them up (but then fanzines didn't have to wait for the direct market that would make most of these projects viable).

The Marvel Saga sets out to summarise the key events in the history of the Marvel universe, showing how they fit together and illustrating them with panels from the original stories. After a few pages of introduction the series pretty much begins with the origin of the Fantastic Four and works from there through the early years of the Silver Age up until the revival of Captain America, explaining characters' back stories when they become relevant. This prevents the series from being bogged down in all the legends of Greece and Scandinavia and other material only relevant to a few, and instead allows a broad range of heroes from the outset. Unfortunately the habit of introducing the backstory only when significant characters debut can disrupt the flow of retelling an individual adventure, such as when the history of Odin is given in one go midway through the story of Thor's first battle with Zarrko the Tomorrow Man. It also means that the Golden Age of the 1940s isn't presented in a narrative order. It's always been somewhat ambiguous just how canonical the Timely and Atlas comics are in the Marvel universe and no answer is given.

What is clearer is the placement of events relative to each other. Thus Spider-Man's origin, which includes weeks of fame, is spread out and other adventures such as the origin and early battles of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four's first encounters with both Namor the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom take place between the radioactive spider's bite and the final showdown in the warehouse. A lot of fans have long taken to trying to work out the exact order in which stories take place, and even what order they should read and perhaps their entire collections in, and this is surely the ultimate realisation of such a chronology. But this doesn't just include the earliest issues themselves but also later revelations and retcons such as including much of Professor Xavier's history and the origins of the individual X-Men or including with Iron Man's origin his escape from the Vietnamese jungle and first meeting with James "Rhodey" Rhodes or showing Thor's youth and punishment by Odin at the point when Donald Blake is introduced into the history. This means the series doesn't leave latter-day readers in confusion as they try to reconcile the current state of affairs with the somewhat different status quo in the earliest days. Sometimes later retellings of origins are used as the source of panels and this is particular useful over cliffhangers as it allows alternate art to depict the reprises.

Early on the run it seemingly tries to summarise almost all of the adventures but it soon settled down and relegated many a lesser tale to a small text section entitled "The Continuity Corner" which puts issues in chronological order relative to one another. This most notably cuts down on a lot of adventures with obscure forgotten foes such as the Scarlet Beetle or the Acrobat and seems to hit the Ant-Man and Human Torch stories more than any other series.

Read all at once rather than over some two and a half years this series shows several common themes running rampant in the early Marvels. There seem to have been no end of obscure alien races visiting Earth in the early days of Marvel with most of the heroes encountering at least one. There was also no end of Communist enemies. When this series was first published in 1985-1987 the Cold War was still going on and it was just about credible (by the standards of the Silver Age) for there to have been so many Communist foes in then-recent history. But nowadays the Cold War finished over two decades ago and Marvel is more open about its floating timeline with the modern era of heroes starting anything from a decade to fifteen years ago. It's also surprising just how often the Fantastic Four fell out or how frequently the Thing regained his human form.

The saga is clearly aware of later stories as well which may have impacted the choices for inclusion such as showing the first battles with obscure foes like the Vanisher and Thug Thatcher. It also does its best to reconcile the early Silver Age adventures of Namor the Sub-Mariner and Captain America with what was revealed or restored to continuity later on, such as explaining why neither really recognises their old comrade in arms at first. The introduction of Captain America in issue #12 goes to some length to flesh out all his history prior to his release from the iceberg, with the various additions to the origin, the Invaders retcons and the immediate post war replacements all included in the details when the Avengers finally find him. Given his prominence on the cover of issue #1, reproduce as the volume's cover, it's interesting to speculate just how Wolverine's patchwork past would be handled.

Overall this first volume of The Marvel Saga is surprisingly fun and easy to read. The concept could risk excessive boredom whilst the widespread reprinting of even the more obscure parts of the Silver Age might have made it redundant for an audience who can easily access the original tales. But instead it offers its own distinct take on the events and makes an excellent effort to weave the tales together into a greater whole. The shared universe and overlapping characters was always a big part of Marvel's appeal and it's good to see this taken to the logical extent.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Essential X-Men volume 9

Essential X-Men volume 9 comprises Uncanny X-Men #244 to #264 & Annual #13 (excluding the Saga of the Serpent Crown chapter that has nothing to do with the X-Men). Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Jubilee, Master Mold and Zaladane. All the regular issues are written by Chris Claremont though the annual lead story is by Terry Austin and a back-up by Sally Pashkow (or not - see below). The art is mainly by Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee with individual issues by Rob Liefeld, Rick Leonardi, Kieron Dwyer, Bill Jaaska and Mike Collins. The annual is drawn by Mike Vosburg and Jim Fern.

This volume covers one of the bleakest periods in the series so far. The early issues see the continuation of the "Outback era" as the team continued to operate out of an abandoned Australian desert town and teleport around the world. The most notable long term impact of these early adventures comes in the very first issue where the female members of the team go on a trip to a shopping centre where they battle the M-Squad, a rather lame set of mutant hunters who are a blatant parody of the Ghostbusters, before returning home with an unknown follower, the rich girl turned orphaned "mall rat" Jubilee. At first it seems she will be taking on the innocent youngster role that's been absent ever since Kitty Pryde was injured out of the series but initially she instead operates in secret without the other X-Men knowing and subsequent events mean that we don't get to see her in the traditional little sister role just yet. Meanwhile the male members go out on the town only to run into a rather ineffective bunch of alien invaders called the Conquest. It seems as though this will be a period of light-hearted tales but things will soon change.

The annual is unusual as the only X-Men issue during his entire run that doesn't have Chris Claremont's name on it. But is he completely absent? The back-up story is credited to Sally Pashkow, a name that hasn't appeared anywhere else in comics. Opinion on the net says that this is a pseudonym for Chris Claremont though everything seems to be pointing to each other, and its inclusion in the X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Volume 1 Omnibus may be more down to a sequential run than anything else. (As a result I've included a separate label to cover all possibilities.) But regardless of whether this is Claremont or a one-off writer in his style the result is a character piece as Jubilee finds herself in the outback town and hides herself away with the aid of Gateway, then starts observing the X-Men from afar and borrowing some clothes. It mainly serves to build up the new character. The lead story is part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover that ran through all the Marvel annuals in 1989 and it resorts very much to formula as a villain, in this case Mr. Jip from Terry Austin's work on Cloak and Dagger, recruits the heroes to find an object of power of unclear importance. The team is split in three and sent to different locations to tackle the problem, here complicated by the Serpent Society. And it's an effective failure as at the end the main villains from the crossover get their hands on the powerful objects. Overall this annual is rather peripheral to the whole "Atlantis Attacks" saga, achieving nothing that couldn't have happened without the X-Men's presence. It's a surprise that Claremont doesn't write the story, perhaps deciding to opt out of taking part in the mess, but the result is the one X-Men story in a very long time by another writer. And it almost seems to be saying that anyone who thinks Claremont has outstayed his welcome should think again as it's very dire in its handling of the characters, with some especial silliness when Dazzler and the Serpent Society's Diamondback temporarily switch bodies. This is easily forgettable.

The tension ups when Nimrod and the remains of Master Mold merge, creating one of the deadliest anti-mutant machines yet. The battle is fierce, with Senator Kelly's wife killed thus increasing the senator's hatred of mutants. Victory only comes when Dazzle deploys the Siege Perilous crystal to send Master Mold to either happiness or recreation, but Rogue is also lost in the process. Rogue has recently been portrayed with a split personality as Carol Danvers comes to the fore more frequently, generating some tensions as each takes control of the body in succession, but the battle terminates any resolution to this dilemma. This starts a steady break-up of the team with Longshot soon dropping aside to go and seek his own identity and history. It's a sign of both his insignificance to the run and the bigger events around him that this departure is almost shoehorned into wider events but he isn't really missed. Then the remains of the team, with Wolverine temporarily away, face the first of two fierce attacks on their doorstep in rapid succession. Nanny, the robotic "egg with a voice", attacks and in battle Havok's energy blast destroys Nanny's vessel with Storm onboard. And unlike most such comic explosions, the body is seen and confirmed afterwards. An interlude comes as the dwindling team respond to a distress call from the Savage Land where they face Zaladane and the Mutates, with the return of Polaris who now seems to have been freed from the control of Malice. Zaladane claims to be Polaris's sister but this plot element isn't really cleared up in time before the last of the X-Men are teleported home to Australia where Donald Pierce and the Reavers are waiting for them.

The series has been building up to this moment with a number of hints and visions that this will be the last stand of the X-Men with no way out. Instead the four - Psylocke, Dazzler, Colossus and Havok - take the one escape route to hand, by going through the Siege Perilous to begin new lives elsewhere. As they admit it is running away from the situation and to add to the indignity this ending is revealed in a flashback shown to the returning Wolverine by Gateway. Wolverine is left as the last of the X-Men and put up for crucifixion by the Reavers but escapes with the help of both Jubilee and Lady Deathstrike's sense of nobility. And so a whole era of the X-Men comes to an end not in glory but in defeat and running away.

But this isn't the end of the series at all. The X-Men have generated many ex-members, allies and influences over the years and the next dozen issues focus on a number of these characters but without assembling a new team. Issue #253 sets up the situation, with its cover reused for the volume as a whole. Initially the main focuses are on Wolverine and Jubilee as they head off into the Far East, the mutants based around Muir Island, with Banshee and Forge really coming to the fore, and a mysterious young girl found in Illinois who resembles a young Storm. Elsewhere various of the X-Men who went through the Siege Perilous come to terms with their new lives, suffering amnesia of their past lives but finding their past can't completely escape them. Unfortunately there is limited unification between the various story strands with the result that the focus jumps around between them and plots can take an age to conclude.

During this phase comes the second big crossover on this volume's watch, "Acts of Vengeance", which, for a change, comes out of the Avengers titles after three years of X-Men derived events. But were it not for the triangles in the top right hand corner of issues #256 through to #258 then one could be forgiven for not realising this is even part of the storyline. It may feature foes the X-Men haven't faced before in the form of the Mandarin and the Hand but there's no co-ordinated attack on our heroes or any reference to the Mandarin's role as one of the Prime Movers supposedly co-ordinating the entire thing - indeed the Mandarin portrayed here is the more sophisticated crime lord that had been developed over the years rather than the traditional ranting supervillain shown in the main portion of the event. This detachment may be of necessity as current events mean the X-Men are presumed dead, impossible to detect with electronic equipment and now lost and scattered by the Siege Perilous, which doesn't really lend itself to enemies launching attacks upon them. Instead we get the basic crossover theme of a villain from another series tied into some very traditional themes for the series of strong women being twisted into ever more powerful agents of enemies and ninjas, plus Wolverine's connections in the Far East from his own solo title.

The most notable event here by far is the transformation of Psylocke from a Caucasian telepath in armour worried about her physical weakness into an east Asian ninja woman. Exactly how her ethnicity is changed is rather brushed over but the whole thing now feels extremely uncomfortable. If an east Asian ninja woman X-Man was needed, it would have been easy to create a new character who could easily be added to the team. But instead an existing character has such a fundamental part of her altered to fulfil the role, as though the genuine article wouldn't do. The story touches upon aspects of culture conflict between the Far East and the West, most notably showcasing the clash with Jubilee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, who proves a highly Americanised tourist who dislikes what she sees. Then she is captured and forced into a traditional serving girl role as a small part of the Mandarin's goal of revitalising the traditional Chinese kingdom. Overall his portrayal is a strong step away from the traditional Fu Manchu role he's sometimes given and Psylocke's transformation does fit into some of the themes but that doesn't redeem the effect even if her new look as a replacement Elektra is wildly popular. The sequence in which her mind is steadily twisted by a quest through distorted memories in order to obtain the Mandarin's ten rings is also a good idea in theory but let down by much of her background not having been previously explored outside the Captain Britain comics in the UK and so the whole things can be confusing at times. All in all the transformation was a mistake that chased a trend and it's amazing that it was allowed to stay permanently, no doubt because of the popularity of the new look.

Whilst Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee make their way onwards to Madripoor with the complication of Wolverine being haunted by images of Nick Fury and Carol Danvers that he thinks are real, other X-Men are coming to terms with their new lives. Dazzler finds herself a singer in Hollywood and her movie is finally released, but former producer Eric Beale stalks her. Colossus becomes an artist and a maintenance man in an apartment block but soon gets entangled with both the Genoshan Magistrates and then the survivors of the Morlocks. The child Storm is being pursued by the Shadow King who frames her for murder, resulting in her going on the run.

Forge and Banshee are built up in a way that suggests they will be the next members to join or return to the team, but it's unfortunate that Banshee's recovery of his powers goes unexplained at first and it's only after a further injury that we see the Morlock healer restore him. Meanwhile Polaris finds her magnetic powers gone but in place of them her body is growing in size and she now has super strength but this goes unexplained. The three of them become part of an ad hoc grouping based on Muir Island along with Moira MacTaggart, Legion, Amanda Sefton, Sunder and other hangers on not seen in a long while, facing off a brutal attack by the Reavers that sees them bailed out by Freedom Force with casualties all around including Destiny. The ad hoc team also wears a uniform, hinting that it could become a new new X-Men but it doesn't take off as such, not least because of one of Legion's dark personas taking over. Magneto is given the image on the volume's spine, taken from the cover, but only appears briefly as he resigns as headmaster of the school and drifts off to his old ways. It's a slightly awkward scene that appears to be trying to rationalise the increased use of the character as a more traditional villain elsewhere, most notably in the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover.

The only convergence of the various plotlines comes at the end of the volume as Forge and Banshee encounter the amnesiac Colossus under the name of "Peter Nicholas" and battle first the Morlocks and then the Genosha Magistrates with the help of Marvel Girl from X-Factor. Along with some individual comments over the issues it seems as though the various mutant teams are being drawn together to be treated as parts of a single whole once more but there's a central element missing. Wolverine is at least stepping up to a Professor Xavier role when he utilises Harry Malone's Harriers to test Psylocke and Jubilee in the absence of a Danger Room. But overall the series is still in scattered pieces.

The art is often strong and it's easy to see how Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee gained such a following. However the writing on the series is in heavy decline. The series has shifted from a long-term careful build-up of plots to an almost random chucking anything against the wall to see what sticks and letting storylines drag on for much longer than they can sustain. The idea of splitting up the team and exploring individual members and the supporting cast is not a bad idea per se but it's very poorly executed and the resulting issues just don't work well. The worst idea to get through is the race transformation of Psylocke but overall this is an exceptionally poor volume for the series.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives is a graphic novel originally published in 1989. Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Alex Saviuk, it retells and enhances the story of Peter and Mary Jane's lives before their famous first meeting, and then shows them coming under attack from Doctor Octopus in the (then) present day.

The first two-thirds focuses upon retelling their lives, drawing on material both from the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko and Lee/John Romita tales and also from Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz's fleshing out of Mary Jane's childhood in Amazing Spider-Man #259. The two future spouses are compared and contrasted through their teen years - it's especially interesting to see that just as Peter was resisting Aunt May's attempts at matchmaking, Mary Jane was equally resisting her Aunt Anna's. However this story takes a number of liberties with previously established continuity. It's easy to overlook the retelling of Spider-Man's origin working solely from Amazing Fantasy #15 and ignoring the additions of later years. More problematic is the presentation of Peter's dating in high school - the implication is that he didn't start dating Betty until after Amazing Spider-Man #15, by which time May and Anna were trying to set him up with Mary Jane. It may avoid the original awkwardness that May was trying to find Peter a woman when he already had one, but changing the original stories is rarely a satisfactory way to solve problems. We also get a repeat of the claim first made in Conway's 1970s run that Peter dated Liz Allan in high school until they broke up at graduation, rather than her just having an unrequited crush as shown at the time. Also left out is the infamous meeting of Mary Jane, Betty and Liz, long before Peter first saw MJ.

But the biggest change is the revelation that Mary Jane knew Peter's secret from the start. Until her return in the #240s of Amazing Spider-Man there had never been any hint of her actually knowing, and indeed on a number of occasions her reaction to Peter's disappearances suggested quite the reverse. Then when she finally confronted Peter with the knowledge, it seemed more like she had deduced it rather than seen it - her reaction to the Black Cat swinging into Peter's flat was "It's true!", like someone who has deduced their spouse is having an affair but not yet actually caught them with the other person before confronting them. Yet here we are expected to believe Mary Jane had known all along. Nor can this be dismissed as an out of continuity story, as this point was subsequently absorbed into the regular titles.

Otherwise we have the contrast between Peter's happy home life, albeit with the shadow of his absent parents, but unpopular and lonely beyond there, with Mary Jane's ever popularity on the party scene but coming from a broken home and seeing a succession of failed marriages and angry exchanges. She finds herself drawn to Spider-Man for also enjoying life and wearing a mask, and then discovers he is actually Peter Parker, making her both curious and afraid. Eventually she succumbs to finding out and the famous meeting finally happens.

Interspersed throughout this are glimpses at Doctor Octopus, another shy introvert. One of Conway's most notorious storylines from the 1970s involved Aunt May nearly marrying Doctor Octopus. Here he represents the time the scientist rented a room at May's and found himself drawn to her, making the connection a little more plausible, until Peter intervened and destroyed the chances of a true bond. This anger continues to the present day when the sight of Peter and Mary Jane's wedding drives Doctor Octopus into threatening the Parker family to lure out Spider-Man, only to be defeated and seemingly destroyed in battle. This strand of the story is the least satisfactory, though it allows for a conclusion in which Peter and Mary Jane address head on the dangers they could face and that they've chosen life over fear.

Overall this tale is an interesting character study and a response to those who argued that the coupling and marriage was inconceivable. (Which makes it curious that Marvel reprinted it as a stand alone release in 2012, some years after undoing the marriage and when that year's film featured a different woman in Peter's life.) By skipping some twenty years (real time) of continuity it doesn't cover either how Mary Jane's knowledge of Peter's secret altered her perspective during their on and off years, or the speed with which they got engaged so soon after Spider-Man broke up with the Black Cat. So it doesn't answer all the questions already floating about nor the ones it raises with its own revelations.

Saviuk's art does a good job of recapturing the Silver Age but doesn't do so well in distinguishing the modern era - it takes more than altering Mary Jane's hairstyle and giving Doctor Octopus a suit of armour (one that looks like it was left over from the early years) to generate a modern feel. Conway certainly tries to bring the various strands together, but DeFalco and Frenz had already done the job of showing Mary Jane's party girl persona to be a facade and the placing of her discovering Peter's secret creates more problems than are needed. Overall this graphic novel looks good and does partially reinforce the case for the two being an item, but it isn't the most convincing case for them that has ever been made.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 6

Essential Wolverine volume 5 consists of issues #111 to #128 including the oddly numbered #-1 issue from "Flashback Month" and also "Wolverine '97", that year's annual. The writing sees the end of Larry Hama's run, including #-1, followed by stints by Warren Ellis, Tom DeFalco and Chris Claremont with the annual by John Ostrander and Joe Edkin. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu, with contributions by Anthony Winn, Cary Nord, Denys Cowan, Stephen Platt and Angel Unzueta plus issue #127 by, get ready for it, Leinil Francis Yu, Carlos Pacheo, Cary Nord, Jeff Matsuda, Melvin Rubi and Mike Miller. The annual is by Leonardo Manco. With lots of creators, naturally there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains a five issue run consisting of issues from one event and then one crossover, coming at an unfortunate moment for the title. "Flashback Month" was a curious event run by Marvel in May 1997 whereby nearly every title had a special issue set way back in the pre-super-hero days before Fantastic Four #1, with the logo, art, lettering and colouring all adopting a simpler form reminiscent of those days, Stan Lee introducing each story in person and the regular numbering being set aside in favour of "Minus 1". The odd numbering alone has made these issues rather a pain to find at times and it wouldn't have been to surprising if this one had been left out of this volume by mistake. But the event is also remembered for the way it backfired heavily on Marvel with sales actually dropping and many retailers finding even their caution was insufficient with some regular buyers rejecting the Flashback issues as out of continuity and out of sequence and thus easy to ignore. The event seems to have put off special odd numbering for a good while but otherwise carries a reputation for retro set issues that rudely interrupted series mid-story, random continuity based adventures featuring characters with no powers interacting with odd combinations of guest stars, dodgey continuity by newer writers not yet up to speed on the rather random histories of certain characters, and the seeding of big plans by writers who would be off the title before they could get round to following them up. It was further hampered by most of the Marvel titles at the time not actually featuring characters who had been around in the Silver Age - a big chunk was temporarily absent due to the Heroes Reborn experiment - and so the stories would be even more strained.

The Wolverine #-1 issue is a mixed offender. It actually came out between storylines, with "Operation: Zero Tolerance" starting the following month, and is written by the series's long term writer who by now was very familiar with the character and what had been revealed of his background. It also has the advantage of being set after Wolverine acquired the adamantium and claws and so provides a suitable dose of nostalgia as we see an amnesiac Wolverine on an early adventure encountering Sabretooth and not knowing him, then facing off against Hydra agents amidst a backdrop of various agencies of various governments all having their own agendas for Wolverine. There are cameos by James and Heather Hudson, Ben Grimm, Nick Fury, Carol Danvers and the Black Widow, all trying for false nostalgia but not really generating the spark. Ultimately tales of sinister government agencies are a more recent phenomenon and rather undermine the attempts to create a pseudo-1961 style whilst most of the cameos have been thrown in for the sake of it. There's no real revelations in this story beyond showing how Wolverine came to like cigars - hardly the most pressing thing needing an origin - and nothing set up for the future. It doesn't even serve as a good introduction to the series for any readers drawn to the special issue. All in all this is one of the worst examples of event comics.

After such a long run, it's a pity that the last five months of Larry Hama's time on the title are taken up with one event or another. "Operation: Zero Tolerance" was the big X-Men crossover in the summer of 1997, seeing the mysterious Bastion utilising a new type of Sentinel/human hybrid to bring mutants under control with government backing. A number of the X-Men get captured and taken to the old Hulkbuster base where they seek to escape, rescue other captives including Jubilee and fend off another round of Sentinel hybrids. It's rather dragged out over four issues that at times feel like they belong more in the pages of X-Men or Uncanny X-Men than in Wolverine, though at least this part of the storyline doesn't weave in and out of different titles and thus slow down this collection. What makes the story hard to follow here is that it starts with the X-Men already captured and arriving at the Hulkbuster base and then after four issues it ends on a cliffhanger involving Cyclops that is resolved in another title and thus not in this volume. It's a pity as this series has normally managed to stand pretty well on its own without needing lots of additional comics just to understand what's going on but here it rather slips up and the result is four inconsequential issues that make for a very disappointing end to Larry Hama's run.

It appears this wasn't planned, as Hama's last non-event issues seem to be building up both a new status quo and long-term threads. After coming back to the X-Men's mansion Wolverine decides he is better heading out on his own elsewhere and settles in a suburb of New York, taking a job at a construction site and developing a friendship with his female foreman. At the same time, Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman and Lake entrusts Wolverine with protecting a mysterious cube. The spirit of Wolverine's old mentor Ogun attacks, possessing a succession of Wolverine's friends and the affair also attracts the interest of Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. All in all it's a very so-so take that is clearly meant as the foundation for something bigger, but as is so often the case with a change of writers, and particularly with fill-ins between them, both the new status quo and the grand plans are abandoned amidst the changeover. As a result even Hama's last non-event storyline is a disappointment and so he leaves the title with his best days clearly behind him.

Hama's departure is followed by a variety of fill-in writers, none of whom lasts any distance of time. The most common feature is a resort to Wolverine's past to pull out a previously unmentioned character to drive the story, starting with the annual in which he revisits the time he was on a mission to aid a scientist defecting from the Soviet Union only for the Soviet agent "Wolf" to intercept them, killing the scientist but letting Wolverine and the scientist's daughter escape. Now the Wolf has returned, having been genetically enhanced with the DNA of his animal namesake and seemingly seeking revenge on Wolverine and the daughter. Over in the regular series there's a four-part epic involving a mercenary known as McLeish or the "White Ghost" from Wolverine's time in Hong Kong who killed Logan's girlfriend's father for the Triads and in return Logan believed he'd killed him. Now it seems McLeish has survived and is subjecting Wolverine to a gauntlet of hire killers in revenge. It's a tough thriller but it's also about two issues too long for all that it actually does.

There's another encounter with Roughouse and Bloodscream from the Madripoor era, followed by a team-up with Captain America against a bunch of killers using invisibility technology. The final showdown takes place before an audience at a time when Cap is experiencing a huge surge of popularity to almost religious levels, making for quite a contrast between his reception and the way Wolverine is normally responded to, if at all. But both these tales are simply marking time.

The final four-part storyline in this volume sees the return of Chris Claremont to the series, after having been away from the mutant titles and Marvel as a whole for nearly seven years. And it's a story arc that suggests that his absence was for the better as we get a storyline packed with guest appearances, silliness and unexplained developments. The anniversary issue #125 brings together a wide range of Wolverine's female allies from over the years, serving to underline his ties and also to allow for a passing back of the torch from Jubilee to Shadowcat as the innocent youthful sidekick. But the whole thing gets messier and messier as the Viper brainwashes many of the women and both Jubilee and Wolverine are forced to relive past actions by both themselves and others. Most of this part of the plot is ditched once the anniversary issue is over and the focus turns to the wedding of Wolverine and the Viper for frankly incomprehensible reasons. Just to add to the mix, Hydra and the Hand team up to take over Madripoor whilst Sabretooth, now enhanced with an adamantium skeleton, shows up to attack Wolverine but then unites with Shadowcat to save Madripoor from take-over. It's a tangled web of shifting alliances, complicated further by a protracted sequence in which Wolverine seeks to pick off Hydra agents by convincing them the Hulk and members of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men are all in town, simulating various heroes' powers with movie effects. The whole thing reads like a mishmash of various Claremont obsessions over the years that have been shoved in a blender and poured out in an incoherent whole, made worse by some rush work on the art including issue #127 having no less than six different artists. The one good idea in the whole mix is Sabretooth being enhanced and deadlier than ever, making for very tense encounters between him and Wolverine, but it is sidelined in the rush to get through everything else. All in all it's a rather messy ending to the volume but a symbolic sign of the incoherence that has plagued it.

This volume is a classic example of how a series can get into a mess when a long term writer moves on and there's no clear plan in place for what to do with the series, resulting in a protracted set of fill-ins and overlong storylines that meander about, doing nothing to develop the character or take the series forward. What should have been a triumphant return by Claremont, and which was doubtlessly highly anticipated as such, instead turns into an incoherent mess as far too many elements get chucked into a single storyline without proper explanation. The volume is also let down by having to contributed to the overlong "Operation: Zero Tolerance" crossover and the "Flashback Month" event where neither of these contributes anything of significance to the series. Overall this is quite a poor volume.

Essential Wolverine volume 6 - creator labels

Once again we have a volume with a lot of creators so here's a separate post for some of the labels.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 3

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 3 collects the entries for Professor Power through to Zzzax from across the thirty-six issue run of the series. Additionally it includes another printing of the single page guide to power levels, the single page special glossary and an index to which issue each entry originally appeared in. Once again the entries are mainly drawn by Keith Pollard and researched & written by Len Kaminski, Jamie Tost, Mark Gruenwald, Glenn Herdling, Murray Ward and Peter Sanderson. The whole thing is edited successively by Mark Gruenwald, Kelly Corvese and Tom Brevoort.

The standard entry for a character has a full-page shot of the character from the front, side and rear. Then there's a page of text with the following pro forma:
  • Biographical Data
  • Real name
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Dual identity
  • Current occupation
  • Former occupation
  • Citizenship
  • Legal status
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Known confidants
  • Known allies
  • Major enemies
  • Usual base of operations
  • Former base of operations
  • Current group membership
  • Former group membership
  • Extent of occupation
  • Physical Description
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Other distinguishing features
  • Powers and Abilities
  • Intelligence
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Stamina
  • Durability
  • Agility
  • Reflexes
  • Fighting skills
  • Special skills and abilities
  • Superhuman physical powers
  • Superhuman mental powers
  • Special limitations
  • Source of superhuman powers
  • Paraphernalia
  • Costume specifications
  • Personal weaponry
  • Special weaponry
  • Other accessories
  • Transportation
  • Design and manufacture of paraphernalia
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Occasionally a section will be followed by a "Note", clarifying some point or other. Sometimes there is no space left for "Significant issues". The entries and art are all printed in landscape format. The first appearances for characters who originated in the Golden or Atlas Ages include both a "historical" and "modern" entry. A few characters get second entries with new looks and updated information, including Sabretooth, whose entries show just how much more of his past was revealed in such a short space of time, and Wolverine, whose ones show how it was all much the same.

Usually the entries are in the correct order give or take some errors such as placing Union Jack III before the combined entry for Union Jack I & II. However there are some odd placements with characters who have no codename and are listed by surname. Thus "Rahn, Tamara" is listed under T but "Stone, Tyler" is listed under S. Some high profile heroes such as She-Hulk get a second page with brief entries for the supporting casts, with the image page showing the hero in action. Spider-Man's cast is so big that he gets a third, with the image page nominally devoted to his webshooters in action. The entries for each cast member list:
  • [Name]
  • Current occupation
  • Relationship [to the hero]
  • First appearance
As ever the Punisher is different and his second page is instead given over to his arsenal in the following format:
  • [Type of gun]
  • [Name of gun]
  • Caliber
  • Action
  • Capacity
  • Weight
  • Note
There are a small number of entries for races such as the Skrulls, presented in the following format:
  • Home world
  • Origin world
  • Habitat
  • Gravity
  • Atmosphere
  • Physical characteristics
  • Type
  • Eyes
  • Fingers
  • Skin color
  • Average height
  • Special adaptations
  • Unusual physical characteristics
  • Superhumanoid powers
  • Intelligence
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Stamina
  • Durability
  • Agility
  • Reflexes
  • Society
  • Population
  • Government
  • Technology level
  • Cultural traits
  • Leaders
  • Names of other representatives
  • Major allies
  • Major enemies
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Groups and organisations are listed differently with this pro forma:
  • Organization
  • Full name
  • Purpose
  • Modus operandi
  • Extent of operations
  • Relationship to conventional authorities
  • Base of operations
  • Former bases of operations
  • Major funding
  • Known enemies
  • Known allies
  • Membership
  • Number of active members
  • Number of reserve members
  • Organizational structure
  • Known officers
  • Known current members
  • Known former members
  • Known special agents
  • Membership requirements
  • History
  • Founder
  • Other leaders
  • Previous purpose or goals
  • Major campaigns or accomplishments
  • Major setbacks
  • Technology and paraphernalia
  • Level of technology
  • Transportation
  • Standard uniforms
  • Standard weaponry
  • Standard accessories
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
The big name teams such as the X-Men have a Membership Roster running over multiple additional sheets that detail each member's time with the team as follows:
  • [Identity]
  • Real name
  • Current status
  • Membership record
  • Note
The index at the back isn't the most useful as the entries are not reproduced in their original issue packs and an alphabetical ordering makes it redundant, with the small number of placement errors just adding to the problem. Otherwise this volume just comes to an end with no reproduction of the concluding editorials that instead appeared in the first volume.

It has become incredibly repetitive to state just how boring and inessential these volumes are but the reproduction of no less than three incarnations of the Handbook has been repetitive in and of itself. The Master Edition is thinnest on actual narrative information and feels like an overblown set of trading cards with the format of landscapes and static images just failing to inspire. There is a clear advantage in having the sheets collected in the intended order but this just doesn't outweigh the fact that in the internet era where it's easy to produce a regularly updated encyclopaedia of characters a paper series from many years ago just doesn't need to be collected at all. These volumes are easily the least essential of all the Essentials.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Essential X-Men volume 8

Essential X-Men volume 8 consists of Uncanny X-Men #229 to #243 & Annual #12 plus X-Factor #36 to #39. Bonus material includes adverts for "Inferno" plus the cover of the trade paperback which combines elements from the covers of issues #240 & #242. All the Uncanny X-Men issues, including the annual, are written by Chris Claremont and all the X-Factor issues by Louise Simonson. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Marc Silvestri and Rick Leonardi with the annual by Arthur Adams and the X-Factor issues by Walter Simonson.

This is an unusual volume in that everything in it was released in a single calendar year, 1988 (though due to cover dates being four months ahead and the newstands being slower than the direct market there are listings out there that place "Inferno" in 1989). This year saw the series go twice monthly in the early summer months, participate in an crossover even larger than any that had come before and also saw the annual take part in the first ever line-wide annual crossover. That's a lot in a short time (and a large assault on reader's wallets - the start of the year also saw the price rise by 25% for not just this book but all of the mutant titles and for that matter four other series that also took part in "Inferno") so it comes as a surprise that this is also an era that set out a very distinct status quo for the team, setting them apart from much of the wider Marvel universe.

That status quo is established at the outset of the volume. Following the X-Men's seeming death at the end of the previous volume they wind in up in an abandoned town in the Australian outback where they battle the Reavers and defeat them. Then they take over the town and the advanced systems beneath it. The mysterious Roma casts a spell that will make them invisible to any electronic scanning device bar their own, whilst the mysterious Aboriginal mutant dubbed Gateway will teleport them to places all over the world. And so the scene is set for the outback era of the series in which the team operate as secretly as possible, seeking to uphold and implement Xavier's dream.

This is quite a bold change from before, with several clear effects. The membership of the team is absolutely consistent throughout the entirety of the volume, comprising Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler, Longshot and Havok. The supporting cast of Madelyne Pryor and Gateway are consistent too at least until the final storyline in the volume. As a result, there's clear character development that isn't messed around or interrupted by membership turnover. However, the set-up does come with some potential loopholes. Though it's not acknowledged here, this volume coincides with the period when Wolverine received his own solo series and it's none too clear how he's simultaneously hiding in Australia invisible to all electronic sensors whilst also operating out of Madripoor. There are a lot of times when the X-Men's involvement has to be hidden and Psylocke resorts to using her powers to alter memories with little regard for the ethics of such actions. And Gateway feels all too convenient a plot device, somehow always knowing when his powers are needed despite never saying a word. On the other hand the electronic invisibility is handled well and sometimes it proves a disadvantage, such as when Rogue and Wolverine try to infiltrate a prison on Genosha in disguise but find their absence from the monitor screens gives them away. Being dead to the world means they cannot contact their families and this leads to Colossus having to pretend he is merely his own spirit conjured up to help his sister Illyana when he goes to see if she is okay and finds her in battle with the witch Baba Yaga in the realm of Limbo. It's a heart wrenching moment to see how cut off the siblings are. By contrast Madelyne has been deserted by her husband and continues to search for her son discretely.

The stories range from a light-hearted Christmas issue (originally on sale in, erm, February) through to the darkness of the Genosha storyline, followed by the "Inferno" crossover. In general the world the X-Men inhabit feels ever darker than before and they find themselves reacting accordingly, finding themselves becoming ever more ruthless and increasingly willing to kill opponents. There's another storyline with the Brood who have possessed a group of mutants in Denver and this story sees the darkness increasing as both Wolverine and Havok find themselves having to kill the aliens.

Some lighter moments come in the annual, which is part of "The Evolutionary War" crossover. Here the X-Men and the High Evolutionary tangle with the alien Terminus in the wasteland that was once the Savage Land and meet with the remains of the tribespeople. It's a so-so story that undoes the needless destruction of the Savage Land, though this didn't take place in Uncanny X-Men at all, but it's utterly unclear just how this ties in with the Evolutionary's masterplan and this frankly could have been a standalone annual with a guest star for all the difference that it makes. A back-up story is more fun as it sees Mojo seek to find television stars to replace the X-Men now that they're presumed dead. After lengthy auditions that parody the practice of finding suspiciously similar characters and gimmick variations, he finally discovers the X-Babies, very young versions of the team but independent characters rather than simply the originals in a de-aged format. And then audience demand overtakes his plans and hopes. Whilst the idea of junior clones of the X-Men should be a disaster waiting to happen, this story actually holds up quite well and offers a fun take on the concept. It would be completely wrong to have them take over the regular series but they have clear potential for side projects here and there.

The first main epic is a four-part tale that introduces the island nation of Genosha, a society built upon mutant slave labour and the use of genetic engineering to convert mutants and alter their powers so they become near zombie slaves who will serve the needs of the state and the economy. The state employs brutal security forces who go out into the wider world and crack down on Genoshans who have escaped the island, refusing to recognise any other legal rights. It's easy to see the parallels with South Africa, then still under apartheid, even though Genosha proclaims itself to be a country of racial harmony. The Magistrates who go out and kidnap emigrants are clearly inspired by the South African security services of the era. On a more mundane level some of the technology is fantastic such the Magistrates sending their kidnap victims to Genosha via a combination of a teleporter and modem. I wonder just how many science fiction and fantasy writers in the period actually understood the capacity of contemporary modems. The X-Men are drawn in when Madelyne is kidnapped alongside a flying doctor who had escaped from Genosha but is now recaptured. They engage in detective work to discover the distinction and head in on a rescue mission. The story has a strong human element as the son of the genetic engineer discovers that his fiancé, the doctor, is actually a mutant and has been converted by his father. This forces the son to go on a journey of discovery to find out just what his country is really like and then to embark upon a mission to educate his fellow humans, albeit initially from abroad whilst the X-Men only rescue their own and leave, albeit after Wolverine and Rogue have temporarily had their powers cancelled by the mutant Wipeout. This causes Wolverine to nearly succumb to his altered body chemistry whilst on the mental level Rogue must confront the traces of all the personas she has absorbed into her. But with the X-Men only rescuing and not actively seeking regime change the overall message of the story seems to be that a discriminatory regime will only be liberated from within when the "superior" people are enlightened, and there's not much the outside world can do about this. It's a very downbeat and depressing state of affairs that suggests oppressive countries should be left to eventually sort themselves out, even if this was not the actual intention.

The biggest story in the volume is "Inferno" which is steadily built up to in the earlier issues as we see S'ym preparing to retake Limbo whilst Madelyne experiences dreams that convince her ever more that for her husband she was only ever a substitute for Jean Grey and was rapidly cast aside when she was found to be alive. In what she thinks are still her dreams she accepts the temptation of S'ym and chooses to seek vengeance on all those who have made her life what it is. At the same time she and Havok have been drawn to each other and begin an affair in spite of him being her brother in law. But it's here that confusion starts to be sewn when S'ym's role is largely taken over by another demon, N'Astirh, who secretly communicates with Madelyne over subsequent issues. It's not particularly clear in the issues included in this volume just what the relationship between S'ym and N'Astirh actually is, though as the alternative would presumably involve including the three New Mutants issues of Inferno (one of which is double-sized) and the four-part limited series X-Terminators then this was probably an inevitable omission in the collection.

"Inferno" itself is a sprawling saga that sees the long-awaited first meeting of the X-Men and X-Factor. It's trying to cram a lot in and the result is that the actual demon invasion of New York is largely rendered a backdrop in the core issues included here apart from the final confrontation with N'Astirh. The dark magic does, however, bring changes to the various X-Men that extenuate their characters in different directions such as extenuating Dazzler's vanity whilst others become more bloodthirsty in their dealings with both the demons and the Marauders. But the real focus is upon Madelyne Pryor who has become twisted into the "Goblin Queen", seeking revenge on Cyclops, Marvel Girl, the X-Men and Mr Sinister all at once. The story sets out to explain both Madelyne's background and the wider manipulations by Mr Sinister over the years, and then to sort out some of the awkward mess caused by the resurrection of Jean Grey and the creation of X-Factor. Overall it does it well but it succumbs to the mess of a newish villain - this is in fact Mr Sinister's first significant storyline - being revealed as the force behind events and confusion going back many years before their debut. The story is also a homage to the Dark Phoenix Saga as once again a copy of Jean Grey acquires great power and is corrupted beyond redemption. But it feels as though it's more of an X-Factor saga than an X-Men one. Yes they may be the original X-Men and the saga doubles as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the X-Men and the 150th issue of the New X-Men (#243 to be precise), but issue #242 is in fact the first time the original team have all appeared in the title since way back in issue #66. The two teams are very different in their standing and approach and so whatever the merits of the crossover for the mutant books as a whole, it does feel a bit underwhelming for the X-Men specifically.

That's pretty much the pattern for this volume as a whole. There are some strong and original issues but they're let down by an underwhelming execution combined with the team not always winning out or being at the forefront. It's a pity as the overall set-up is certainly quite novel but the full package is less than effective.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Venom: Birth of a Monster

Venom: Birth of a Monster is a standalone entry in Panini's Marvel Pocket Book series. It contains Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 and Amazing Spider-Man #298-300. The Spectacular issues are written by Peter David and drawn by Rich Buckler and the Amazing issues are by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane.

First published in 2007, it is all too clearly a tie-in to the movie Spider-Man 3. But rather than spotlight the film's most heavily featured villains or show the original Alien Costume Saga we instead get the first full appearance of Venom, the two preceding issues which contain cameos at the end, and the classic "The Death of Jean DeWolff" storyline which Venom's origin feeds off. Or not.

By far the most common criticism of Venom (at least before he was so heavily used that charges of overuse could be made) is the rather weak motivation behind his human side. And the problem is compounded not only because his backstory was hooked into an earlier well-known storyline, but also because it changed the details of how that storyline panned out. Collecting both in a single volume just makes the two stand out all the more.

Now I've written about "The Death of Jean DeWolff" before and so I'm not going to rehash my general opinions here other than to say I would have preferred a Venom-focused collection to have instead included more Venom-focused issues. No matter how great "The Death of Jean DeWolff" is, it just doesn't feel like it has to be here. And not including it would have hidden the great continuity error. During this story the Sin-Eater's neighbour overhears some of the killer's plans and succumbs to delusions, believing himself to be the Sin-Eater and he steals a costume and gun then heads off after the planned next target. However he's soon overpowered and arrested, but Daredevil spots the heartbeat is wrong and he and Spider-Man soon discover the Sin-Eater's real identity.

However when Venom appears his backstory is that journalist Eddie Brock of the Daily Globe had been contacted by the impostor Sin-Eater and run interviews with him, concealing the identity until legal advice forced it out. Then soon after the revelation the real Sin-Eater was caught, the Globe humiliated and Brock sacked. Brock had fallen for a liar but blamed Spider-Man for exposing the true killer, reasoning that with an arrest the real killer might have dropped out of sight. Now there's nothing at all in the actual Sin-Eater storyline that supports this chain of events so it's an awkward retcon. And there's no real need to tie Brock's downfall into a pre-existing storyline. There is a huge history of Spider-Man himself being accused of one crime or another, only to prove himself innocent and any case of over-eager journalism could have sufficed. But even then Brock's story feels hollow. In the real world journalistic ethics have had a lot of exposure in recent years thanks to revelations of the means by which some journalists obtained stories and at times interfered with police investigations. Brock's story may have been based on a real world journalist's handling of a purported killer but his attribution of blame on the hero who brought down the real killer rather than himself for being so rash in pursuit of a story feels hollow. Yes numerous other villains have silly origins and motivations, and Brock is shown as angry, depressed and suicidal so probably not in the right frame of mind anyway, but few of the debut stories of other Spider-Man villains went to such depths to try to establish a degree of credibility to the new foe's motivations. With Venom the attempt just comes off badly.

It also doesn't help that Eddie Brock was a completely new character with no established conflict with either Spider-Man or Peter Parker. Starting with the mid 1990s Spider-Man cartoon it became commonplace for retellings of the Venom story in whatever mediums to provide just such a longstanding conflict. The cartoon made Brock a rival photographer at the Bugle who comes to hate both Peter and Spider-Man, but gets sacked when he conceals photographs in order to make Spidey look like a criminal. The film Spider-Man 3 does the same but also makes him a contemporary of Peter and a seeming rival with women - basically Lance Bannon in all but name. Such approaches, and there have been others based around the Ultimate universe approach of making Brock a fellow science student who was once Peter's friend, work much better because the hate feels much more solid and also it reinforces the idea of Venom being a version of Spider-Man gone wrong.

The idea of a villain who shares enough elements with the hero to be a distorted mirror image is fairly standard and often attempts are made to add elements to existing foes to push them in that direction - both the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus have experienced this over the years. It's rarer to introduce a lasting foe who is much more explicitly a distorted reflection, right down to the appearance and powers. And just to add to everything riding on this, Venom was introduced in what was both the 300th issue of the main Spider-Man series and the 25th anniversary celebration. It was an odd choice to use such a landmark issue to introduce a new villain and although he went on to massive glories, on the evidence of just the issues in this collection it seems like a mistake to give him such an accolade.

The build-up in the previous two issues is minimal - just a page or two at the end of each. The rest of issues #298 & #299 are given over to a two-part story involving Chance, a gambling mercenary from Michelinie's earlier run on Web of Spider-Man, and who would be largely forgotten if not for the moments at the end. All three Amazing issues come from the first year after Peter married Mary Jane and featured his continued worries about the fact he makes far less money than her, plus some of the problems of being a married superhero such as having to let his wife know when he'll be late or coming home to find she has visitors and/or cleaners in the flat. Then there's Aunt May worrying that over intrusive relatives can undermine a new marriage and so she's keeping her distance. The final issue also sees Peter move out of the flat he's rented for many years, as he and Mary Jane need a bigger place and after her encounter with Venom there MJ feels she can never be comfortable in the flat again. For similar reasons she makes Peter abandon his black and white costume for good and resume wearing the traditional red and blue version. It's surprising just how much happens in these issues.

Unfortunately this doesn't leave too much space for Venom. We get a flashback as he terrorises Mary Jane, causing Peter to deduce the alien costume has survived, and then a protracted search once Spider-Man has borrowed the Fantastic Four's sonic gun. However the costume is too far bonded to Brock for this to work - but it's a good piece of continuity to establish just why it can't be disposed of as easily as it was before. The encounter between Spider-Man and his dark reflection is quick and establishes the new foe as a force to be reckoned with but nothing too spectacular. Venom's appearance is also restrained here - the pocket book cover by Jon Haward explicitly homages McFarlane by taking some of his famous images of Spider-Man and putting Venom in a similar pose. However it's Venom after Erik Larsen modified the appearance to add features such as the elongated jaw, the large tongue, the spiked teeth, the distorted eyes and so forth. McFarlane's Venom is little more than a bulked up Spider-Man with a visible mouth.

All in all this collection is a little disappointing. "The Death of Jean DeWolff" doesn't need to be here and the Chance issues are forgettable. That leaves Venom's first full appearance but it just shows how underdeveloped and poorly thought through the character was at first. It would have been much better to have included some later appearances to show how he developed as time went on. Still the pocketbook was surprisingly cheap when published - RRP £3.99 - and the real problem is with how weakly conceived Venom was to start with.
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