Friday, 30 October 2015

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 is a change from the norm, containing material in narrative rather than publication order from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #2 to #6, Dracula Lives! #1 to #13 and Frankenstein Monster #7 to #9. Bonus material includes some pin-ups from the magazines and also from a calendar, unused pencilled artwork from the multi-part story planned for Tomb of Dracula #70 to #72 before it was condensed into a single giant-size issue, and finally a couple of one-page stories. The Dracula stories are written by a wide range of writers including Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Peter Gillis, Gerry Conway, Doug Moench, Gardner Fox, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, Mike Friedrich, Jim Shooter, Steve Gerber, Len Wein and Rick Margopolous. The art is by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Vicente Alcazar, Frank Robbins, Steve Gan, Sonny Trinidad, Yong Montano, Dick Ayers, Alan Weiss, Frank Springer, George Evans, Tony Dezuniga, Paul Gulacy, Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, Alfonso Font, Mike Ploog, Frank Robbins, Alfredo Alcala, George Tuska, Val Mayerik and Ernie Chua. The Frankenstein Monster issues are all written by Mike Friedrich and drawn by John Buscema. With such a large number of creators there are not one but two separate labels posts.

One of the less often commented features about reprints is that they aren't always exactly the same as the original publication. Cutting pages or even individual panels to fit a smaller page count or different size format and modifying footnotes to reference other reprints are the best known but there's also a long history of amending dialogue and visuals to suit different sensibilities. Just to add to the confusion the state of the archives isn't always the best so the material available or ordered up is sometimes identical to the original printing, sometimes a modified version from a later reprint and occasionally an earlier prepublication one that was modified before it first went to the printers but with the unaltered version hanging around in the files. The Essentials have had a mixed record on source material over the years, with the earlier volumes often relying on other reprints whilst the later ones developed better techniques for going straight back to the source material. But even then some things were still changed. Usually these changes aren't too well documented but this volume, released almost at the mid point of the Essentials, has had some changes made to the artwork to cover up nudity, especially on the first story with Lilith.

Were this not known about it wouldn't affect readability at all - the changes focus on hiding nudity, mainly by extending existing clothing. (There are some comparisons between the original and modified panels at The Groovy Age of Horror: Censored Essentials? - be warned the nudity is clear.) Marvel of course has every legal right to do this (the US doesn't have the concept of creators' moral rights to object to tampering with the work) and whether this was the company's own decision or a response to the modern standards of distributors and booksellers is unknown, but the alternative may have been no reprint at all. But it's a pity that it was deemed necessary to make the modifications as it does ultimately mean this isn't quite an exact reprint (and that means even more when most of the material was in black and white to start with). And the market for reprints of old Dracula stories shouldn't have a problem with it. Certainly there's other material with pretty adult themes such as pirates attacking a village, including rape (the word is actually used) and their female captain is shown using sex to beguile and control her crew, with one crewmember shown being rewarded and later others promised "Hellyn's reward will be given to all who score with a thrust!" when facing Dracula. Yet despite this the story finds itself unable to say "bastard" and has to use the euphemism "fatherless dog".

As for what's actually been printed here, this is very much a mishmash collection of material. It starts off with a couple of tales from Tomb of Dracula Magazine, continuing where the last volume left off, before running through a whole set of historical adventures from the various magazines and another character's comic, then finishes off with the present day tales from Dracula Lives! magazine that ran parallel to the early issues of the Tomb of Dracula comic. The result of all this is that the volume jumps around. Reading between the lines it becomes clear that Marvel didn't really know what to do with the ongoing adventures of Dracula now that the 1970s horror fad had passed and Marv Wolfman had left the character (and was in the process of leaving the company altogether). Consequently it's unsurprising that the magazine ended after just six issues and there's nothing in the early stories that suggests any real direction with the most significant development being an ending of sorts as Lilith is separated from the body of Angel O'Hara and then finds she is unable to kill her father. The other early tale is a more typical piece of what is to come, with Dracula preying on an innocent woman, here a ballerina, and transforming her. She eventually commits suicide and is not the only female victim to do so in these pages.

The historic adventures of Dracula show no development at all, being just a succession of tales in different historic periods. Reordering them chronologically helps to disguise the lack of direction but it also exposes some inconsistencies in the basic vampire mythology, most notably as to whether a transformed victim needs to wait three nights or not before rising again, whether Dracula needs to spend the day in a coffin full of Transylvanian earth or not, and whether he needs to be invited in before he can enter a public dwelling. Each of these rules is both adhered to and broken throughout the course of these tales, with Dracula's precise vulnerability to crosses also fluctuating somewhat. This just reinforces the mess these tales are.

By and large the historic adventures either fill in the core history of Dracula, although the adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel is conspicuously absent, or else place the vampire in a particular period setting as he wanders across Europe and occasionally beyond, but always ultimately returning home. There's a variety of stock characters and situations including hordes of Turkish warriors, witches, pirates, court nobles, American Civil War soldiers, cowboys, gangsters and wartime Germans. And there are attempts to do more with the formula than simply preying on women and evading their menfolk. But something just doesn't feel right about these stories. Dracula is ultimately a late Victorian Gothic creation, even if he was named after a historical figure from the fifteenth century and has since had that historical character fused into the fictional one. Seeing him placed in other historical settings just doesn't feel right and few of the tales are able to really rise above the limitations. As a result the only historic stories of any real significance are the early ones which tell how Vlad the Impaler became a vampire in the first place and also how the centuries long war between Dracula and the Van Helsings began. There's also a particularly dark tale as Dracula encounters and brings down the notorious real life serial killer Countess Elizabeth Bathory, here depicted with all the gruesomeness of bathing in the blood of virgins to restore and maintain her youth. It's a particularly dark tale that shows Dracula up against a woman who is immune to his bite, forcing him to resort to more devious methods to bring her down, making for a good homage to what is believed to have been one of the influences upon Stoker. Otherwise these tales are really just back-up filler that don't work when collected together in their own right. Early on a text piece entitled "Bloodline: A Probable Outline Of The Career Of Count Vlad Dracula" summarises all the adventures and material from various flashbacks and that contains probably everything that could be needed to cover his historic career.

The three Frankenstein Monster issues are set in 1898 and appear to be Dracula's first appearance after the Stoker novel, which is given a very brief one page summary here. The issues show Frankenstein's monster on a search for the last of his creator's family and encountering a travelling gypsy circus on the way but one of the gypsies has ulterior motives. It leads to a rather dull conflict between two of the greatest horror creations who each deserved so much more. As is so often the case with these tales we get Dracula preying on innocent women in an isolated settlement and clashing with the local men, with some suspicious townsfolk thrown in who bring a gruesome fate to the gypsies. We also get what is becoming an increasingly routine occurrence whereby Dracula ends the story seemingly slain but his killer lacks either the knowledge or time to perform the necessary actions to destroy the corpse before the vampire can be brought back to life. Though we sometimes see Dracula resurrected, such as here when an old gypsy woman tricks the monster into unsealing a tomb, the succession of deaths and unexplained resurrections work to undermine the overall impact of the stories by disrupting the narrative flow and removing the impact of danger and destruction to Dracula.

The final part of the volume is only slightly more coherent, being taken up with the present day adventures from Dracula Lives! and so at least publication and chronological orders coincide. But apart from a vague narrative as Dracula comes to the States in an unsuccessful search for his old foe Cagliostro before heading back to Europe, this is much the same as before. Dracula wanders through a succession of scenarios, ranging from becoming addicted to drugs after biting a junkie to a battle with an eighteenth century man who has been transformed into a stone gargoyle that only comes to life at night. A visit to New Orleans sees the Zombie passing by but there's no interaction between the two horror characters and instead the focus is on an encounter with Marie Le Vau, the "Voodoo Queen of New Orleans". Elsewhere in Hollywood Dracula challenges a has-been actor who has been portraying him and suffering delusions that make him believe he is the actual vampire. Dracula's nastiest streak comes to the fore at times as he sets traps, especially when he bites a terrorist and sets him up to be exposed to sunlight without realising what will happen. A particularly favourite trick is to set a foe up by biting an expected acquaintance in advance who in turn becomes a vampire in time to attack. A number of women are drawn to Dracula over the course of these stories and he will sometimes be drawn to them in return but ultimately will never settle with any of them, leaving them lonely and, in one case, suicidal. The biggest addition to the mythology is the Montesi Formula, a spell that can destroy vampires permanently which leads Dracula to risk invading the Vatican in order to dispose of both Cardinal Montesi and the formula before it can be used permanently. Otherwise these tales are just more of the same.

This volume primarily serves as a companion piece to the three earlier ones, collecting together material from the supporting series and guest appearances that never fully fitted alongside the ongoing narrative in the monthly comic. And this patchwork shows even without being reordered into a chronological framework. There's no development or recurring cast beyond Dracula, whilst a lot of the situations bear a strong similarity to one another. All in all this volume is pretty inessential.

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 - creator labels 1

Here's a volume with a huge number of creators so it takes more than one separate post to fit all the labels in. There's another post as well.

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 - creator labels 2

Here's a volume with a huge number of creators so it takes more than one separate post to fit all the labels in. There's another post as well.

Friday, 23 October 2015

What If... Essential Champions volume 1?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Some Avengers previews

As per the norm when completing a full set of Essential volumes for a particular series and/or character, here's a look at later issues collected elsewhere. Four further Avengers issues come up in other volumes.

Avengers Annual #10 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Michael Golden, reprinted in Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 and later editions of Essential X-Men volume 3

Ms. Marvel is found with her mind and memories gone after an attack by the mutant Rogue. The next targets are the Avengers as Rogue and Mystique set about trying to free the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants from prison. Meanwhile a recovering Ms. Marvel has some strong words to say.

This annual is strongly remembered for two reasons. It's surprising to recall that such a prominent X-Men member as Rogue was originally introduced in the pages of Avengers and indeed there are times when this story feels more like a chapter of X-Men that just happens to feature other heroes, with Spider-Woman teaming up with the Avengers. Rogue's ability to absorb powers and memories makes for a foe who can discover the team's secrets, making her an especially hard challenge to overcome as she works her way through the team's most powerful members.

But it's the epilogue that's the more shocking as the Avengers meet Ms. Marvel for the first time since she departed for Limbo with Marcus. And she doesn't hold back in blasting them for their failure to help her. She bluntly tells them how she was used and raped by Marcus and how when she turned to her friends for help they failed to realise this and responded in a cack handed way. It's a very blunt response to the events of issue #200 and as Claremont had been the main writer on her solo title it's easy to see this as a direct counter to how other writers had misused the character.

Avengers #214 written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Bob Hall, reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider volume 3

This issue features a compare and contrast between Yellowjacket and the Ghost Rider, both of whom have suffered a fall in glory due to their actions. Hank Pym finds himself expelled from the Avengers, informed the Wasp is divorcing him and ends up in a slum hotel. Meanwhile Johnny Blaze is working in a petrol station in a small town in the west and his alter ego attacks the passing Angel. The Avengers journey to the town to find the Ghost Rider, leading to a battle until the Angel recovers and calms things down and they let Johnny go free.

This is a somewhat slight issue, combining a guest appearance with ongoing plotlines and a downtime moment for much of the team. As a result the issue starts with a focus on day to day events in New York and the continued fallout from Yellowjacket's disgrace before the reduced team head west and largely serve as a curiosity for the townsfolk during their search. Earlier Jarvis lectures Captain America on the importance of allowing people to ultimately make choices for themselves rather than impose direction upon them, a lesson that guides his response here.

Avengers Annual #11 written by J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Al Milgrom, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 6

The Defenders' old foe Nebulon is exiled to Earth and seeks help from the Avengers, claiming to have reformed, whilst another of his species, Supernalia, recruits the Defenders claiming that Nebulon is going to destroy the world. The two teams clash in the Himalayas, with a mystery as to which of the two aliens is telling the truth.

This story comes from a period when there was a tendency for annuals to sometimes forget just who the primary character(s) for a series are. It reads as a good Defenders story, wrapping up the saga of one of their long running foes with some strong characterisation, but it's very much an intruder into the Avengers' own title and doesn't really do a great deal with the team beyond throwing them into a fight. The annual also includes the Charter and By-Laws for the Avengers, which will excite all those who have ever had to write or read constitutions. Half the space of the by-laws are taken up with membership, going into such details as how many meetings a year a reserve member is required to attend, and rather less space is given to how the aims and objectives of the team shall be implemented.

Avengers #263 written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Buscema, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1

An aeroplane containing the Enclave and some equipment crashes into the bay, causing a massive explosion and ongoing energy geezers. The Avengers investigate and discover a cocoon at the bottom that resists all attempts to approach it and seek to find out just who or what is inside. Meanwhile the Melter prepares an attack but the Scourge of the Underworld has other ideas.

This was the launch of a mini-crossover with Fantastic Four that aimed to prepare the ground for the new series X-Factor that would reunite the five original X-Men. With one of them having been killed off, this crossover set out to bring them back to life. Pretty much all the controversial material is in the Fantastic Four chapter, leaving this as primarily an extended investigation of the strange goings on in the bay with the potential that the Enclave have once more created a super-being. The Melter scene is almost entirely detached from the main story, being one of a number of such scenes across the Marvel line that saw lame supervillains being killed off. Overall in isolation this is a rather tame issue of the series.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Essential Avengers volume 9

Essential Avengers volume 9 consists of issues #185 to #206 and Annual #9 plus a rare original story from the second Tales to Astonish series #12. Bonus material includes the covers of the collections Avengers: The Yesterday Quest and Avengers Visionaries: George Pérez. The writing is mainly by David Michelinie with various plots and/or scripts by Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Bob Layton and Bob Budiansky with the annual by Bill Mantlo. The art is mainly by John Byrne and George Pérez, with other issues by Arvell Jones, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Don Newton, Alan Kupperberg and Gene Colan. The annual is drawn by Don Newton. The Tales to Astonish story is written by Tom DeFalco and drawn by John Fuller. And yes, there's a separate labels post.

The cover to this volume is an understandable but unfortunate choice. Originally produced for issue #200 it was structured around a big "200" which has here been removed with the Vision and Wasp moved slightly. But the result looks a little odd, especially as the Beast is now hovering mid air. It may be the main cover to show all the active Avengers in a non-story specific image but it just doesn't work here. And of course, it's the cover to one of the most notorious of all Avengers issues.

Leaving aside its most notorious element for a moment, issue #200 is extremely lacklustre for such an important number, with the main action being a set of time rifts that bring dinosaurs, knights, cavaliers and other generic historic foes to the present day, rather than any substantial battle with an old foe. It's hardly a grand moment worthy of the big anniversary double-sized issue. And that's especially annoying as the next story sees the return of Ultron. Marcus may be the son of old Avengers foe Immortus but it makes no real difference and he could just as easily have been a new character's offspring. And then there's the whole mess with Ms. Marvel's sudden accelerated pregnancy that lasts just a few days, resulting in the birth of a baby that rapidly grows to adulthood and explains he's manipulated the whole thing in order to escape from the realm of Limbo. A flashback narrated by Marcus explains how Ms. Marvel was kidnapped to Limbo, wooed with poetry, music and clothes and then seduced "after relative weeks of such efforts -- and admittedly, with a subtle boost from Immortus' machines". And she is shown accepting this to the point that she opts to accompany back to Limbo the man who has used mind control devices on her when his efforts to stay on Earth are thwarted. It's astonishing how this was not realised to be a tale of rape when it was thought up; but it was famously called out soon afterwards, first in Carol Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel". More recently I tested a quick synopsis on a friend with no interest in or knowledge of Avengers comics and he came to the same conclusion. The issue stands as a black mark on the whole of Marvel and is easily the worst in the entire volume.

Marcus isn't the only character who is revealed to be the child of a major villain, though in order to put all the pieces together one would have to either read contemporary issues of X-Men or see through the asterisks on issue #192's letterspage which is reproduced here. Issues #185 through to #187 constitute "The Yesterday Quest" storyline as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver journey to Transia to sort out the competing and contradictory information about their origins. In the process Wanda is attacked by Modred the Mystic and then possessed by the demon Ch'thon. Meanwhile Pietro meets Bova, the cow woman who served as midwife to the twins and who now reveals the truth about them and the three competing sets of parents. We now learn that the Whizzer and Miss America were not the parents after all, merely a couple that Bova and the High Evolutionary tried to trick into believing otherwise, and that Django Maximoff was actually their adoptive father who along with his wife raised them after their own twin children died. Their actual mother was a woman called Magda, fleeing her powerful husband and determined to protect the children from them. Joining up the dots reveals that the father was none other than Magneto.

It's worth noting that this story predates the revelations about fathers and siblings in the original Star Wars trilogy so is not as derivative as it may now seem. But it's still a dubious and ultimately unnecessary retcon. The motivation for the story is explained on the letterspage as a desire to sort out a load of contradictory moments over the years that didn't fit the previous revelation. There also seems to have been a motivation from the way Magneto and Quicksilver are often drawn looking very similar. But a lot of Marvel characters closely resemble one another without anything ever being said - nobody has yet come up with a story that reveals Captain America is the father or, as time goes by, grandfather of Hawkeye or Yellowjacket or any other clean-shaven blonde man drawn in the Marvel house style. There is simply no need to retroactively make Wanda and Pietro's parents anyone of significance. It's true that they had previously been made the children of Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America, but the mess would have been best just left alone. It's also somewhat pointless as Wanda and Pietro themselves don't find out who their actual father is at this point and nothing is done with this revelation at all at this stage.

The Avengers begin this volume in a state of restriction due to the controls imposed by Henry Peter Gyrich of the National Security Agency, who at times seems to be the main obstacle to saving the day. Things are made worse by the changing line-up as some of the members Gyrich has selected take leave, to his annoyance. The team quickly find ways to circumvent him where necessary, including a memorable moment when Captain America rings up the US President and gets him to overrule Gyrich, but eventually Gyrich threatens to shut the team down for good. The matter ends up in the hands of a Senate committee when an attack by the Grey Gargoyle proves fortuitous in proving the Avengers' worth and the restrictions are lifted. Not long afterwards the Falcon departs, having felt like an ineffective token member imposed upon the team who hasn't really contributed. It's hard to disagree with the latter half of his assessment, which seems to stem in part from the large number of writers on the series since he joined, making it harder to develop this part of the plot. The team settles back in a more expanded form with Wonder Man returning full time and the likes of Hawkeye, Yellowjacket and Thor passing through for an extended period. The new Ant-Man also appears but as a guest star for now.

Making their first appearance are the Elements of Doom, a group of creatures mutated from humans into beings with the qualities and powers of particular elements. There's also a poignant confrontation with Inferno, a steel worker who is thrown into molten slag with a fragment of Thor's hammer that turns him into a rampaging monster bent on revenge on the criminals who chucked him. Another monster created by industrial sabotage is Pyron, a saboteur who is turned into a ferocious fire wielder. But the big new foe is the Taskmaster. A man with the ability to reproduce any move he has ever seen without any practice at all, he has established a series of academies to supply henchmen to other villains. His unique abilities make it exceptionally hard for the Avengers to counter him until he encounters Jocasta, who he has no knowledge of. Older foes seen included Red Ronin from the pages of Godzilla, Ultron and the Yellow Claw.

The annual is a sequel to an issue of Iron Man not included here and sees an attack by the robot Arsenal, a secret weapon left over from the Second World War and now guided by a computer called Mistress. The whole thing is a tame affair but for some brief character moments for Iron Man as he realises who built the robot and computer and just who the latter's thinking is based on. The special Vision story included here sees the android dealing with terrorists who aim to assassinate a Latin American dictator arriving at an airport and sees him faced with the dilemma of having to either save the dictator or an innocent man suffering a heart attack. His solution does not win him cheers. It's also an odd piece as it unquestionably presents the dictator as a force for good stability and order and the revolutionaries as bad in spite of crying about liberty. A six page guest story is rarely the place to debate whether stable dictatorships or revolutions are better for a country but equally it's not the best place to be so blasé about it all.

There are rather a lot of issues focusing on the team off duty, whether it's Hawkeye taking a job as head of security at a technical company and fighting Deathbird, Wonder Man getting a job as the sidekick on a children's entertainment show, the Beast and Wonder Man on a double blind date, Jarvis dealing with a bully in his mother's neighbourhood, Wonder Man and the Beast finding mutated creatures in the sewers (years before the Turtles), or even the Elevator Incident when the whole team gets stuck in a lift shaft. Looking through it's clear that the partnership of the Beast and Wonder Man has appealed strongly to the writers but the two characters often don't rise far enough beyond mere comedy moments.

Overall this is something of a slight volume most notable for the notorious issue #200, the retcon about the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's parents and the introduction of the Taskmaster - and that's about it. Otherwise the foes and battles are mainly forgettable and there's just too much time devoted to the Avengers off duty to the point that the issues don't feel as special as they are billed. Without one particular issue this would be a relatively dull and disappointing period for the series but issue #200 makes this a particularly bad volume.

Essential Avengers volume 9 - creator labels

Another volume with lots of creators so here's a post for some of the labels.

Friday, 9 October 2015

What If... Essential Invaders volume 1?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If... Essential Invaders volume 1? - reprint labels

This hypothetical volume would reprint some reprints of Golden Age titles and the labels for them are included here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Some Fantastic Four previews

As is standard upon completing a full set of Essential volumes for a particular series, I now take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the Fantastic Four there are actually quite a few such issues.

Fantastic Four #218 written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by John Byrne, reprinted in Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2

This is the second part of a crossover with Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man involving the Frightful Four, who on this occasion have recruited Electro as their fourth member. They have already captured Spider-Man and now the Trapster impersonates him in order to infiltrate the Baxter Building so the Frightful Four can take out the Fantastic Four one by one.

This is a fairly traditional plot but it was part of a brief fill-in run on the title. The Frightful Four have long offered potential for development but have always been somewhat constrained by the lack of a permanent fourth member. Electro may not be female but otherwise he fills the role quite well and has some history with the Sandman so more could have been done. However Spider-Man's presence in the story is almost needless as the Frightful Four are operating at night and could easily have impersonated him without his noticing it. The story is also noticeable for an attempt by Sue to evade capture by turning invisible away only to find her dressing gown doesn't disappear with her. Stories over the years have been rather inconsistent on how her powers affect her clothes when not made of unstable molecules. This issue is serviceable but very much a reworking of past stories.

Fantastic Four #286 written and drawn by "You Know Who" aka John Byrne, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1

This is the second part of a mini-crossover with Avengers in order to set-up part of the new title X-Factor. The Fantastic Four (during this period the Thing had been replaced by She-Hulk) return to Earth where they temporarily staying with the Avengers and get caught up in the mystery of a capsule discovered in the harbour. Inside they find none other than Jean Grey, but with memories that stop several years earlier. Reed, Sue, Captain America and Hercules set out to try to find out what went wrong.

This is one of the most controversial issues in Marvel history, starting from an editorial rewrite that led to John Byrne taking his name off the issue and the controversy spread further due to a retcon rewriting one of Marvel's most famous stories, the "Dark Phoenix Saga". Adding to the mess was a conscious desire to keep X-Factor separate from the Uncanny X-Men for at least its first year and so the job of doing the heavy lifting to set up the new title fell upon other series. As a result an extra-long issue with no adverts feels less like a special issue of Fantastic Four and more of an intruder from another series; a point reinforced by the way both the Fantastic Four and Avengers know very little about the X-Men's adventures in recent years. There's the odd good moment such as Sue standing up to Reed in disagreement about taking Jean to her parents' home or using her invisible shield to neutralise Jean's telekinetic abilities without regard for those around her but overall this isn't really a Fantastic Four story. Its significance and controversy lies elsewhere.

Fantastic Four Vs the X-Men #1 to #4 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Jon Bogdanove, reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 7

The Fantastic Four find themselves shaken to the core by the discovery of a journal suggesting Reed engineered the original cosmic rays accident to empower them by design. Reed suffers a major crisis of confidence and rejects the X-Men's pleas for help to save Shadowcat's life. Then Doctor Doom steps up and offers to perform the task.

This is very much the Fantastic Four's story with the X-Men largely serving a role that could have been performed by any group of heroes. We get a strong character focus that zooms in on one of the biggest holes in the four's origin, namely how could someone as smart as Reed fail to foresee the danger of cosmic rays and suggests it was all a plan, as well as exploration of Doctor Doom's ultimate goals. Reed's self-doubt and the others' uncertainties make for strong moments as the Four, including She-Hulk who tags along despite being in the Avengers these days, come to realise just how strong their bonds our. Franklin is used to maximum effect as his powers show a fear of what is to come whilst his innocence cuts through the suspicion and anger that rages amongst the adults. The story strains a little to credibly include She-Hulk, suggesting it originated in a period when it wasn't too clear just which four of the five regulars would be around for the long run, but otherwise it's a strong character study of Reed and, to a lesser extent, Doom. It's surprising that it took over a decade before Chris Claremont took on a regular run on Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four Annual #23 (main story only) written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Jackson Guice, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 4 and also in Essential X-Men volume 10

This is the opening chapter of the "Days of Future Present" crossover that ran in the 1990 annuals for X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men, and serves as a sequel to one of the best known X-Men stories. The present day is visited by an adult Franklin Richards who is clearly undergoing some trauma and taking refuge in bringing happy childhood memories to life, including an earlier version of the Four living in the Baxter Building. After a confrontation with the alternate incarnation, plus an attack by robots from the future, the current Four track down the adult Franklin as he continues reliving his childhood. Meanwhile a mysterious robot is activated by his presence.

Here the focus is on establishing the adult Franklin and setting up the mysteries to be resolved in the later chapters so there's not too much plot advancement and a chunk of the chapter seems more concerned with contrasting the present day Four with the 1960s incarnation. The decision to do smaller annual crossovers was undoubtedly a good move for readers' wallets but a side effect is that the stories are now much tighter and so individual chapters are insubstantial on their own. This is very much the case here.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9 consists of issues #184 to #207 (#189 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annuals #12 & #13. The writing sees the end of Len Wein's run and the start of Marv Wolfman's with other contributions by Roger Slifer and Bill Mantlo and the annuals are by Wolfman and Mantlo. The art sees the end of George Pérez's run and the start of Keith Pollard's with other issues by Sal Buscema and John Buscema and the annuals by Bob Hall and Sal Buscema.

This is a volume with quite epic ambitions but also one which seeks to explore just what the four's purpose is in sticking together and doing all that they do. It's a lofty approach that only grows once Marv Wolfman takes over from Len Wein but it reflects the problem this series has traditionally had in that too many creators can't find much to do and so retreat to the safety of rehashing things from the Lee-Kirby run. But a series has to look forwards not back and this one well and truly succeeds.

It's not always smooth sailing though. The series is hit by some especially bad schedule problems such that issue #188 ends on a dramatic moment and isn't properly continued until issue #191. In the meantime we get first a reprint (not actually included here) and then an "Album Issue" as Ben recalls some key moments in the four's history, including several past break-ups. Given the situation the four is currently in this retrospective feels more appropriate than the average recap fill-in issue but it's still treading water at a critical moment. Moreover, a two issue delay would have been extremely unhelpful when these were originally released but even here they contribute to a slowing of critical momentum. However once this problem is passed the series experiences an extremely smooth changeover of writers with Wolfman almost effortlessly carrying on from Wein and taking the four from a difficult break-up to an eventual reunion that feels natural and not at all forced.

The annuals are a sea of calm amidst the changes all around them though their placing does create a few small problems. Both are put between issues #201 and #202 but the first annual is presumably set earlier on during calmer times for the four - but there isn't an obvious place to put it despite it being written by the series's regular writer. The second annual is by another writer and so can be more forgiven for not quite fitting into the regular events - it does its best to explicitly set itself directly after the four reforms in issue #200 but issue #201 starts out in Latveria before bringing the four home and there isn't an obvious moment to detour into the events of the annual. It's an early example of the problems of a policy that tries to rigidly place all issues in publication order clashing with the aim of ongoing storylines in the regular titles. The annuals themselves are an interesting mix. The first one sees an adventure with the Inhumans where astonishingly the villain of the piece isn't Maximus for once. Instead the Inhuman antagonist is Thraxon, who has been given temporary powers by the Sphinx. What seems like a typical piece of annual inconsequentialness, although reasonably well written, will turn out to be more significant later on in the volume. The second annual is a more typical piece that almost could have come from file but for scenes showing the four getting themselves back into business. Otherwise we get a tame tale of the Mole Man kidnapping blind and ugly people and giving them an alternative life underground where they are accepted, a life that some actually accept. It's a reminder of how not everyone finds it easy in life but the option of just dropping out and setting up an alternate civilisation isn't a terribly enviable alternative.

Over in the regular series much of the first half of the volume is driven by events stemming from Reed's loss of his stretching powers and Franklin's & Agatha Harkness's kidnapping, both at the end of the last volume. It's quite a character arc for Reed as he faces up to situations in which he feels helpless but still has to find a solution, starting with an attack by the Eliminator, an armoured being who shows up at Agatha Harkness's mansion with the task of eliminating all traces of her time in the outside world. The search takes the four to New Salem, a settlement hidden in the mountains ruled by witches led by the fearsome Nicholas Scratch. Scratch has assembled a team of warriors known as Salem's Seven, made up of Brutacus, Gazelle, Hydron, Reptilla, Thornn, Vakume and Vertigo. Upon returning to New York we get another invasion of the Baxter Building, this time by Klaw and the Molecule Man, the latter trying to obtain a body of his own. In the process he possesses Reed's, to terrifying effect. Reed fights for control but afterwards feels that without his powers he has become a weak and inefficient member of the four who is vulnerable to being used by villains so opts to resign. Sue declares she will go with him and with no obvious replacements the four are dissolved.

As the album issue reminds us, this is not the first time one or more of the four have quit. But rather than someone storming off in a moment of anger or a misunderstanding driving people apart, this fracture has been steadily built upon. For all the apparent weaknesses of other team members, Reed's stretching powers have often seemed the least important part of the four with his intelligence being a much more significant role. Having him drop aside immediately upon being depowered would have felt odd and he does initially try to use science to compensate, reactivating his old metallic extensions from a previous time when he lost his powers. But overall he finds himself weakened in mind as well as body and ultimately chooses to not be a burden to the others. And critically the four don't formally reassemble as a group for many issues to come. A reunion is teased in what was clearly intended to be the next issue when Ka-Zar's old foe the Plunderer tries to steal the four's equipment when the Baxter Building is shut down, but despite everyone responding to Reed's flare it's only a temporary respite.

We then get a series of solo~ish tales of individual members of the team who gradually find themselves drawn back together. So Johnny goes car racing in the desert and catches up with Wyatt Wingfoot again, only to face off against the Texas Twister who has been hired to kidnap him by an unnamed person. Ben returns to space piloting, taking up a job with Nasa where the space shuttle programme suffers sabotage and interference by Diablo, who is using Darkoth, an old friend of Ben's who was framed and then mutated by Doctor Doom. Sue goes back to acting, getting a role in a Hollywood picture but finds the studio is still owned by Namor the Sub-Mariner, who has left Atlantis in horror at the way his people have virtually deified him but his kingdom deploys a group of robots called the Retrievers of Atlantis to take him home and the incident makes him reconsider his position. Reed takes up scientific work for the government without realising which one and that he's helping a foe with a plan to take over the world.

These tales allow each member of the four to shine some more without having to share too much space with the others, a particular useful period as the main focus of the storyline falls upon Reed. The others find themselves getting ever strong and more powerful, particularly Sue who is now really using her forcefields to maximum effect. It's all good character building in the run up to the anniversary issue. There are various humorous asides throughout the run, with the Impossible Man prominent at first as he pops up (sometimes literally) in a succession of issues as he tries to understand the world around him, most notably movies. Most of the time these are comical asides but they do reach a more serious point when confronting Klaw as the Impossible Man duplicates the villain's sonic horn and the use of the two weapons causes a sonic feedback boom. Otherwise the Impossible Man is generally an irritation and eventually he takes the hint, only to reappear in Hollywood and pester everyone until Sue reads him the Riot Act.

Reunion eventually comes but surprisingly it's staggered and facilitated by Doctor Doom. Capturing first Reed and then the others, he proceeds to demonstrate his perceived superiority by finding a way to restore Reed's stretching powers, but the inadvertent resurrection of the Red Ghost puts a spanner in the works. However the process allows for a minor modification to the four's origin to explain why only they and the Red Ghost have gained powers from cosmic rays and not the countless others who have now flown into space. Meanwhile Doom is planning a master plan to simultaneously gain Latveria greater diplomatic acceptance, take control of the United Nations and seemingly step away from ruling Latveria, leaving it to his previously unseen son whom he plans to transfer the four's powers to. With the other three captured, Reed embarks on a bold solo mission into Latveria where he joins with rebels following Zorba, the legitimist pretender to the throne, where they attack and discover the truth about Doom's son.

This all builds up to issue #200, one of the first anniversary issues to be double-sized. And appropriately it has a showdown between Reed and Doctor Doom, with the former demonstrating that stretching is no silly throwaway power that can't make a difference. It's a strong battle, augmented by the other three rushing to stop the rest of Doom's plan, and really gets into the heart of the hatred between the two men, showing Reed in all his glory. This issue set a marker for double-sized anniversary specials that contain big moments and by having the formal reunification of the four, a triumph over their arch enemy and the conclusion of a long-running storyline it certainly sets a high standard for everything that was to follow.

The remaining issues in the volume start off as something of an anti-climax, beginning with another attack in the Baxter Building almost as soon as they've reoccupied it, followed by a team-up with Iron Man as they confront the cause of the attack, Quasimodo. Then there's an encounter with a young mutant whose powers create twisted doppelgangers of the four but also showing how they help with the small problems as well as the galactic ones. Then the final few issues see an interesting split in the team as Reed, Sue and Ben go off into space but Johnny stays on Earth. Given the timing it's tempting to wonder if this was a reaction to the late 1970s cartoon that used the first three but replaced Johnny with a robot called Herbie as the rights to Johnny had been sold elsewhere. Herbie doesn't appear in these issues but otherwise it seems the most likely reason for the split. The first three go off into space to help Adora, ruler of Xander, to see off an attack by the Skrulls. It's a different angle to the same storyline from the last issues of Nova and once again an Essential volume ends partway through the storyline, with the three's spacecraft suddenly meeting that containing Nova, the Sphinx and other characters. Meanwhile on Earth Johnny feels he should complete his education but finds he no longer impresses women around him and is too much of a celebrity. Soon he is invited to study at Security College, apparently an institution for the children of the famous and important. However Johnny and a guest-starring Spider-Man soon discover sinister operations are being undertaken by the Monocle, using the students as tools.

This volume is slightly weakened by being open-ended at both ends, especially as it is now the final Essential Fantastic Four volume, but it shows both respect for what has come before and imagination to build upon the foundations for strong new tales. The build-up to issue #200 is carefully handled and allows the series to delve into the four both as individuals and as a group, reaffirming what holds them together. This is a generally good volume but let down by ending midway through a big storyline with seemingly no resolution.

The months ahead

Those of you keeping tally (and I know there are some) will have observed that we are coming to the last handful of Essential volumes and may be wondering what now.

I won't be looking in-depth at DC's Showcase Presents volumes (although I might do another special one) or any other lines but instead will aim to bring the site to a neat conclusion in the New Year. But before I reach that I'd like to salute a few more significant titles that were never covered in the Essentials but I'll be doing it in a different way from before.

This time I'm going to look at some hypothetical Essentials, imagining the contents of a prospective first volume for a title based upon various other collected editions so as to get a good first chunk of the series. These reviews will appear in the regular slot and approximately alternate with the actual Essentials over the next few months. Watch out for the first one next week.
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