Friday, 27 November 2015

What If... Essential The 'Nam volume 1?

Another in this look at hypothetical Essential volumes...

Essential The 'Nam volume 1 would contain issues #1 to #21. These are otherwise available in two trade paperbacks that are Classics in all but name, released in 2009 & 2010 with the last issue in the third from 2011. (Be warned there were other trades with suspiciously similar names in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s.) Additionally it would include a couple of brief stories from Savage Tales #1 & #4 that were a forerunner of the series and which can also be found in the third volume. Bonus material would include "'Nam Notes", a glossary of military terms and slang from each issue plus perhaps some of the covers from the special magazine that reprinted two issues at a time. All the issues are written by Doug Murray with an initial art run by Michael Golden who is succeeded by Wayne Vansant with one issue by John Severin. The Savage Tales stories were also written by Murray and drawn by Golden.

War stories have a long tradition in comics but by the mid 1980s they were largely dying out in the US market and were one of the genres that didn't really survive the transition to the direct market. So it's a surprise to see that Marvel launched not only a new title but on focusing on what was at the time the single most controversial conflict that the United States had been involved with. But The 'Nam is a far cry from the traditional war comic that shows soldiers performing incredible actions against a demonised foe. Indeed the first of the Savage Tales stories that act as a forerunner say it best when the narrator declares, "All in all, this ain't 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes'." [sic] Nor does it set out to justify the conflict in retrospect. Instead, it tells the story of ordinary soldiers on the ground, showing what it was really like.

My country was not (officially) involved in Vietnam. Had it been then it is quite possible my father and/or one of my uncles would have seen service there. Instead, the British mainly know the war only through exposure to its portrayal in US media. Consequently it doesn't have the same resonance here, nor is there an obvious equivalent conflict. The United Kingdom's confidence as a world power had been blunted in the 1950s by the Suez Crisis but that was very much a diplomatic and economic humiliation rather than a military one. Nor were tactics and methods known about and attacked back home in a way that split society and saw many returning soldiers attacked and shunned. The military did not go out of fashion in entertainment here - e.g. military toys did not have problems in the market so that whereas G.I. Joe shifted to become more of an adventurer, Action Man carried on in traditional military combat. More recently Iraq has seen bitter division over taking action and it has certainly had an impact on foreign policy since. Servicemen and women have been through an experience that nobody who wasn't there can ever truly understand. However, returning troops haven't been attacked as though they are the ones responsible for the invasion. The scars are deep but different from those created by Vietnam. As a result, the demonisation and rehabilitation of Vietnam veterans is something that is only understood indirectly here.

Doug Murray is a veteran of Vietnam and it shows in the writing. How much of it is autobiographical and how much comes from others is unclear, but there's a strong personal element and passion to the writing, as though he's finally getting the chance to tell how it really was. This stands out particularly with the depiction of some officers who are so callous about the men under their command that it's a surprise they don't get shot or fragged (murdered with a grenade) by their own side sooner, or with the fates of men as diverse as tunnel runners or the left behind. The language may be a little sanitised and there may be some subjects such as drugs that are steered clear of but that was a price worth paying to be able to get as much of the story out there to a wide audience - and in any case the series does get close with some of the swearing such as "Holy sh--" or "REMF" - the acronym for Rear Echelon Mother Fucker, meaning desk based staff who took decisions without being in the field themselves. There's a lot of army jargon in use and each issue carried "'Nam Notes" to explain the various acronyms, slang and technical terms used by soldiers at the time.

At this stage, the series takes place in approximately real time, with the first issue starting in early January 1966 and issue #21 is set in October 1967. Each issue takes place roughly one month after the previous, with no grand cliffhangers. It's thus possible to dip in and out of any individual issue, making it extremely new reader friendly and helping the title to grow its audience once word of mouth came in. But it also provides a degree of rigid structure to the narrative, reflecting the rigidity of army postings, and preventing the title from getting bogged down with individual incidents. This also allows the series to rotate its cast, reflecting the way men were assigned for a thirteen month period and looked forward to the last months when they were "short" and could expect to not be sent out in the field then a wake-up and the freedom bird home. Of course not everyone was limited to thirteen months and the series does show some longer serving officers and NCOs as well as men who choose "re-up" for additional tours of duty in Vietnam, whether because they want better promotion prospects to help their careers, to leave the army sooner or to exploit the rule on only one family at a combat zone at any given time and thus keep younger brothers out of Vietnam. However even the last reason is questioned with the story of what instead happened to one brother.

The first issue gives a strong flavour of what is to come. Edward Marks is a young private who gets deployed in Vietnam in the 4/23d Infantry ("Mechanized, of course!") in January 1966. And nothing has prepared him for what he finds there. The art captures a young fresh faced soldier discovering just what war really means. There's confusion and corruption in the army when he arrives. When he goes out on patrol, he rapidly finds out how dangerous it is in the field. He sees bodies and kills for the first time and his reaction isn't triumph but to vomit. He meets fellow soldiers at various stages of their tour of duty, all slowly conditioned by what they have experienced and becoming ever more cynical. At the end of the issue the soldiers watch a war film and comment how it is nothing like reality.

Marks is the primary character for the first thirteen issue and later on another devotes a large chunk to a letter from him about his experiences back in "the world" (which the "'Nam Notes" glossary tells us means the US - an interesting insight into perspectives) as he comes home. We don't learn too much about his background until the letter issue but it's clear he comes from a close knit family and is relatively naive of not only the world of Vietnam around him but even parts of the adult world in general. This is most notable early on when he's taken on leave to Saigon and is ignorant both about cinema snacks and about women, to the point where he's nearly mugged when he thinks he's getting off for the first time. However he's also supported by the camaraderie of the his fellow soldiers who are used to "greenie" new recruits who take time to learn. Service has a clear impact on Marks, most immediately apparent in his increased swearing as commented on by others who note how the "altar boy" is changing. Similarly, he slowly learns that shooting in action is not "a little John Wayne" but a much more brutal and inefficient experience. When he leaves and goes back to his hometown it becomes clear things have changed for both him and his friends. Wider public opinion has also shifted and he doesn't recognise the conflict portrayed in the media. As a result, he determines that someone has to tell the story of how it really is and opts to be that one, in one of the most explicit autobiographical moments.

Marks finishes his tour in issue #13 but we continue to follow the ever-rotating squad with attention shifting to Sergeant Rob Little and Specialist Andy Clark. Little is a long serving soldier who has been wounded twice and ended up on desk duty before the series began but befriends Marks when they're lost in the field on a special mission for a reporter. The action makes him want to go back to the field permanently and he gets a promotion. He serves as the main bridge between Marks and the next generation of soldiers until he's badly wounded by a grenade and ends up nearly losing a leg. Clark is nicknamed "Aesop" for the stories he tells and it's not always clear how much truth there is in them. He has already done one tour but is motivated to re-up both by his seeing an orphanage that he wants to help and by a desire to keep his two younger brothers out of the combat zone.

The progress of time and action brings an ever-changing nature to the cast though the emphasis is nearly always on the 4/23rd. Some characters only appear in a single issue that focuses upon a particular aspect, whether it's defectors from North Vietnam, tunnel runners with one of the worst jobs of all or the air force providing cover. Others continue from issue to issue, making for a real poignancy when they're injured, killed or captured. This truly is a series where anyone can die and it doesn't pull its punches. Nor are the fates always glorious. Mike Albergo is the squad's comedian in the early issues, taking an ironic attitude to the war and becoming Marks's closest friend. Albergo is relaxing after a night's action and looking forward to an early discharge when he's suddenly shot dead by a sniper. It's a shocking moment that shows just how suddenly a man could be lost. Also of note is the platoon leader's letter to the parents, part of which is reproduced on the last panel showing how it gives a different impression from reality in order to disguise the senseless nature of it.

But the biggest anger expressed comes over two soldiers who are last shown alive. Frank Verzyl is a tunnel runner, one of the men sent into the underground tunnels and bases with limited weapons to sweep them clean. In what feels like an inventory story left over from Savage Tales we learn how he was freaked out when exploring a base and suddenly releasing two dozen hungry rats. He escaped only for a newly arrived greenie 2nd lieutenant to insist on sending him back down and the only way out was to shoot the lieutenant. There's a real sense of anger with the idiocy and callousness of such officers who took needless risks with other men's lives and sanity, with the result that Verzyl went insane. The story is told in narrative text rather than speech bubbles and it feels very much as though it's a name change telling of something Murray himself witnessed. There's also a clear sense of anger around the fate of Chandradat Ramnarain. An arrogant experienced soldier who mainly keeps himself to himself, it soon becomes clear he's a black marketer. But his fate is nevertheless undeserved when the incompetent Lieutenant Alarnick sends just three men to check out a village, then declines to send back-up when it becomes clear the Viet Cong are active in the area. Then when under attack and with the other two staggering in wounded, Alarnick writes off Ramnarain, in spite of protests by the sergeant, and orders an air strike. We last see the private alive and captured, watching the platoon being evacuated by helicopter. The issue of men missing in action who were believed by many to still be alive as prisoners of war abandoned by the army and US government has been a contentious one over the years and here we get a strong statement in support of that view.

The depiction of NCOs and officers varies, showing both good competent commanders who will never take unnecessary risks through to foolish glory seekers, cold hearted blunt men of action and corrupt officials. Indeed right at the outset Marks learns about corruption the hard way when he doesn't realise he should have bribed First Sergeant J. Tarver to get a comfortable assignment and is instead placed with Sergeant Polkow, the "Top"'s nemesis. Eventually Tarver is set up and caught out. It's a more comfortable fate than that received by Lieutenant Alarnick, a brutal, callous, racist and arrogant officer who ignores entitlements, puts men onto stupid duties, takes risky action and abandons soldiers in the field. It gets to the point where Little is having nightmares about being dragged ever further into danger by Alarnick who then offers a place in a body bag. The line is crossed when he shoots an unarmed prisoner in the head and declares himself more worthy of medical attention than Little who has just shielded him from a grenade. It comes as no surprise when Alarnick is fragged - murdered with a grenade in his quarters with the strong implication that it was First Sergeant Rowland who planted it. Rowland himself may be a heavy drinker and a covert murderer but otherwise is portrayed as a more reasonable competent man who won't risk lives needlessly. The same is true of the initial commander, Lieutenant Fenelli, and Sergeant Polkow but such is the nature of rotation that both get replaced.

If there's one thing conspicuously absent from the series it's glorification. This is a warts and all version - literally so with even the fungus in wet boots covered. There's also a strong blast at the media coverage, with a television reporter appearing in an early issue and being given special treatment to the point that a helicopter's landing is altered just to get good pictures - with fatal consequences when it's shot down. A village is casually ordered to be napalmed, creating dramatic pictures. Later on Marks sees the typical coverage when he gets back home and is shocked by how different it is from his experience, portraying the Viet Cong as unstoppable and not explaining how important napalm drops and defoliant are to the troops. Marks's letter is written in March 1967, at an early stage in the anti-war momentum, but even at this stage there's a real sense of disconnect and outrage about the image of the war given to the public back home.

But equally life is not all miserable men with many shown finding their own amusements and various official entertainments, including a popular visit by a female university choir. Clark forms an attachment with a nurse, but she is eventually overwhelmed by all the action and injuries and takes a posting in Japan. There are trips into Saigon, though even there the men have to dodge both explosions and crime. Christmas sees an attempt at a truce but it doesn't last with first rocket attacks and then a child brings a grenade into a party. But in spite of all the dangers and despair there's a strong resilience shown as the men do their best to enjoy their time away from the action, making each day easier to bear.

Being the story of ordinary soldiers on the ground, the series doesn't spend much time focusing upon the causes and background to the conflict. The domino theory is raised but only to explain the presence of troops from Thailand which has agreed to join the US action, with the troops taking part in a joint action to acclimatise them. The main background comes in an issue devoted to the story of Duong, a "Kit Carson Scout" who has defected the North Viet Cong. When asked his reason by Marks, Duong tells a personal tale through the events of the Japanese invasion, the French recovery, the French repression and expulsion, partition, the repression under Ngô Đình Diệm and the arrival of the Americans. It's a tale of successive brutal repressions in which the Japanese, the French Foreign Legion including ex Nazis, the Diệm government and the Viet Cong all committed atrocities to the point that Duong came to doubt his own side was bring freedom. It explains his motives but also the motivation of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. And it's told in a way that's a far cry from classic wartime atrocity propaganda.

Overall The 'Nam is a novel in comics form. It aims to give a voice to the ordinary soldier, men who did not take the decision to go to war with North Vietnam or decide what tactics to use. Instead, they found themselves deployed in a chaotic situation in the field and felt nobody back home ever truly understood what it was like. In their heyday many war comics where written and drawn by veterans, who often brought their own experiences and the tales they heard from others to the printed page. The 'Nam sits in that tradition but does so very differently. It's not glamorous. It doesn't set out to justify a controversial military action. It just tells it like it was for the ordinary guy caught in the thick of it. At once so simple and so complex, this is an incredible series that turns the genre on its head and finally delivers a voice. It's easy to see why this series was especially popular with veterans who found they could give it to their families to explain what they had been through. This series is a fine example of what can be achieved with comics.

Should it have had an Essential volume? DC have been much better than Marvel at getting their non-super-hero material into print in the black and white format and have reprinted a good number of war comics. Marvel tends to use other formats for reprinting material from this era so it's unlikely they would ever have done The 'Nam in the Essentials. But given the format of the narrative this is a series that deserves big chunky reprints rather than lots of smaller ones, with the most recent trade paperbacks only having reach issue #30. It's certainly a deserving series.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A few Thor previews

As is standard when I complete a full set of Essential volumes for any particular series and/or character, it's time to take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. Thor has had three such issues so far.

Thor #373 to #374 written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1 and also in Essential X-Men volume 6

These issues see Thor return to Earth after an extended period away and with Odin having disappeared in battle with Surtur. He reflects on his lack of life at home and winds up spending time with foreman Jerry Sapristi's family - with the children rapidly seeing through his alter ego Sigurd Jarlson's disguise of glasses and everyday clothes but promising to keep the secret. Then Thor learns of disaster in the Morlock tunnels under Manhattan and goes there to find the Angel being crucified by the Marauders Vertigo, Harpoon and Blockbuster. Elsewhere Balder undertakes a mission with a black feather whilst Volstagg tries to comfort two Earth children after their mother has been killed.

These two issues are part of the "Mutant Massacre" crossover between the various mutant titles and those written by either Louise or Walter Simonson. But for the family connection, it's unlikely the series would have taken part in this event and Thor's contribution to the event is rather slight, consisting of rescuing the Angel and then seeing to the aftermath. With Hela having placed a curse on Thor that makes his bones brittle, these two issues focus heavily on the themes of parents and death. There's quite a bit going on from other Thor issues from the period that can make these two hard to follow in isolation, even though they also offer some decent character moments such as Sigurd's time with the Sapristi children or Thor's reflections upon the fate of the Morlocks. But overall the title didn't need to take part in the crossover and it shows.

Thor #378 written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 2

Loki has schemed with the Frost Giants and brought Ice-Man to Asgard in order to restore his allies to their full strength, but the mutant's powers go beyond expectations, driving the Frost Giants into an independent attack. Meanwhile Thor has been badly injured and his brittle bones will not heel so he summons a special suit of armour he has had forged on Earth and imbues it with magical properties. Within the new armour, he is now fully fighting again. Elsewhere Asgard is hit by a mysterious illness that removes all motion.

This is a mid part to a storyline and its inclusion on its own makes for a rather awkward mess as we join Ice-Man after his capture but only see the resolution to his own involvement, with consequences that will last some time in X-Factor. For Thor this is actually a pretty major issue, as his armour constitutes the single biggest change in his look yet. Though it serves as an exo-skeleton to compensate for the failings of his own body, it doesn't in anyway feel like a rip off of Iron Man's armour but instead an extension of the magical themes of the series. Loki is bolder than usual by standing up to the Frost Giants, in part because his own father was one, and the result is a set of multiple dilemmas. Overall this is an issue that's trying to do a lot at once and succeeding, but it's hard to follow in isolation as it's only a mid part of a tight storyline.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Essential Thor volume 7

Essential Thor volume 7 contains issues #248 to #271 (issue #254 was a reprint represented here by the cover and a copy of the apology caption) plus Annuals #5 and #6. Bonus material includes an unused cover for issue #264. The writing is nearly all by Len Wein, including one annual, with one issue co-plotted and scripted by Roger Stern, a couple of back-up tales written by David Anthony Kraft and the other annual written by Steve Englehart. The art is mainly by John Buscema, Tony Dezuniga and Walter Simonson with the back-ups by Pablo Marcos whilst one annual is by John Buscema and the other by Sal Buscema.

The first annual in this volume is quite a curiosity, sitting outside the present day narrative and maybe outside of continuity altogether. It starts with a prologue that narrates the creation story from Norse mythology, showing how the worlds came about and Odin's rise to power. Then it embarks upon an alternate telling of the first encounter between Thor and Hercules, with Loki manipulating the situation to provoke conflict between Asgard and Olympus but Odin and Zeus have their own plans. It's also shown how each set of gods is reliant upon worship and the Asgardian attempt to capture the Ancient Greeks' loyalties completely flounders. The implication, though not explicitly stated, is that each set of gods were created by the worship of their followers, bringing the mythology to life, hence the contradictions created by their simultaneous existence. The story is also one of the first to rewrite modern Marvel history by showing a very different first encounter with Hercules from the original annual, but hand waves this away by pointing to the confusion and uncertainties of mythology that throw up stories that directly contradict one another. This tale was originally written for a black and white magazine series that never happened and then got modified into colour for the annual so it's nice to see it as close to the original intention as is now possible. The art is some of the best in the whole volume, showing John Buscema at his most mythic.

The other annual is, in itself, more mundane fare but would go on to have a big influence outside the title. It sees Thor transported to the future where he winds up in a team-up the Guardians of the Galaxy to battle Korvac, previously seen in the pages of the Defenders but who would go on to be a significant player in the Guardians' own timeline. This annual seems a rather tame beginning but it would subsequently form the basis for one of the most memorable of Avengers storylines. Otherwise it's a typical example of the annuals of the mid Bronze Age and its placing here between issues #266 and #267 is a little surprising as it pre-empts Thor's return to Earth. The two-part back-up "Tales of Asgard" is also tame, telling of how a young Thor learnt there is more to battle than weapons and that he must always use his brains first.

But the main interest comes in the regular issues as this volume contains an eighteen part epic saga (with the reprint falling one third of the way through) that focuses upon Odin's displacement from the throne of Asgard and his eventual return. Apart from some brief comedy at the outset, most notably the scene where Thor sorts out a traffic jam by physically lifting each car out and carrying it to the correct lane, this saga is set completely off Earth. Instead it combines Asgard, the various other realms such as Valhalla or Nornhein and a quest into deep space. The length may seem off-putting but it's never billed as a single piece and instead sees a series of adventures starting with the problems in Asgard due to Odin seemingly going corrupt and mad under the influence of new advisor Igron, then follows a search for the real Odin whilst Balder seeks to uphold the realm against an attack, concluding in a showdown back in Asgard.

It's a storyline with ambition but also at times it seems a little too willing to use almost every single aspect of the Thor stories that isn't connected to Earth, and even one or two that are. So for much of the epic Thor is allied with Sif and the Warriors Three with additional help from variously Balder, Karnilla, the Grand Vizier, Hildegarde and the Recorder. Many of the longstanding villains return, including Mangog, Hela, Ulik, the Grey Gargoyle, Amora the Enchantress, Skurge the Executioner, Loki and the Destroyer armour. There's even a return of the Stone Men from Saturn whom Thor battled in his very first appearance. The quest itself brings another piece of mythic conceit as Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three embark aboard the Starjammer (the name just predates the group from X-Men), a space ship that looks like, and is piloted as though it were, a Viking sailing ship. Towards the end of the quest it's fitted out with weaponry, but it still makes for a striking visual that reinforces that the Asgardian civilisation is built on magic, not science. And there's a strong menace, with even Ragnarok being threatened when Mangog arranges to have the Odinsword in its scabbard placed beneath the stolen throne so that he can kick the sword out and trigger the great destruction in the event of being overwhelmed.

But as well as all the returns there are lots of new ideas, with Mangog's restored power depending upon the worship of the Asgardians due to his disguise as Odin, and his downfall comes when he acts in anger to destroy their trust. Hela allows Thor to walk free of her realm as she reasons death would be preferable to what is to come to him. In space the quintet come across a derelict spaceship where the weaker passengers are being picked off by a monstrous tentacled beast called Sporr - but not for the reason everyone assumes. The Grey Gargoyle turns up as the captain of a ship of anthropomorphic animal space pirates. There's a dying alien race who seek to use the Asgardians' life-forces and magics to revive their fortunes, worshipping Thor and the others even whilst sending them to their deaths.

Less original moments come when the epic mines either the well-worn clichés of fables or the more predictable elements of the series itself. At one stage Thor petitions the spirit Mimir for the real Odin's location and is sent on a quest for a jewel; in the process Thor is forced to sacrifice the jewel to save the Trolls from the beast called Trogg having pledged to save them another way in order to prevent fighting over the jewel. Astonishingly Mimir gives him the information anyway, as the real quest was not for the jewel but to show Thor was worthy. This secret test of character has been done too many times in mythology to not be predictable. And there's the revelation that the mastermind behind the Enchantress and Executioner's attack on Asgard is none other than Loki, who once again secures the throne. Loki has frankly been done to death in the series and it would have been a greater surprise had he not appeared in this saga. Instead it makes the last few issues quite a comedown. There's an attempt to enhance his villainy with a moment when he sends the Enchantress and Executioner to their apparent deaths, but otherwise it's business as usual.

One of the more unfortunate effects of such a lengthy saga is the disappearance of Jane Foster as a character with barely a word. She insists on coming to Asgard with Thor and the others, pointing to Sif's spirit within her giving her strength, but once there she picks up Sif's sword and finds that when she slams it against the wall she is replaced by the goddess herself. Although the relationship between Donald Blake and Thor was messy for years and subject to retcons, there was a time when it seemed that the two were different personalities with separate histories who alternated, but this was never fully explored before it was established Thor had been Blake all along. Now for the first time we get the potential alternation of two distinct characters who cannot be so easily retconned into the same person, with the added complication that they are rivals for Thor's affections. There is a huge amount of potential in this... so it's a pity that Jane is forgotten for the rest of the volume and Sif treated as the sole entity occupying the body. When Thor opts to return to Earth Sif stays behind with no mention of Jane; nor is her absence addressed on Earth as Donald Blake seeks to re-establish himself there. It's as though she's been forgotten by all including the writer; a very arbitrary solution to the long running question of which of the two women is the right one for Donald/Thor, seemingly destroying a character in the process and ignoring all the potential story possibilities that could stem from the different aims and objectives of Jane and Sif.

But in spite of the individual problems, overall this storyline is fairly strong. Because of the twists and turns it's entirely possible to come in midway without missing important details for later, and so back in the 1970s this must have been more of a treat than an infuriation with the length, but it's all the better for having been collected in a single volume rather than being broken across more than one collection as indeed some releases do.

The last few issues see Thor return to Earth on his own, Odin having given the Warriors Three another mission that keeps them away whilst Sif also remains in Asgard. On Earth Thor finds he's been away for over a year (which will give the chronology mappers a headache), the building his surgery was in has been torn down and his regular patients scattered. Thus there's a clean slate for Donald Blake's life on Earth, though within these issues the only step taken is the suggestion of volunteering at a free clinic. Otherwise Thor battles a variety of foes he's not faced before, including the techno criminal Damocles, Stilt-Man, Blastaar and the computer F.A.U.S.T. The Damocles story is well constructed in the way it focuses upon the criminal and his brother Eric in conflict without being explicit in comparisons with Loki and Thor, and the climax where Eric finds himself with no option but to shoot his brother is very moving. Otherwise the adventures form a mini-epic as Stilt-Man is manipulated by Blastaar who in turn is manipulated by F.A.U.S.T. Stilt-Man has a new set of armour with a number of upgrades that make at least a semi-credible foe but Thor's power level means intervention by Blastaar is necessary. The chain of manipulation and betrayal eventually culminates in F.A.U.S.T. building itself a spaceship to attack humanity from orbit. But the conclusion feels rushed and undermining the title character as he turns to the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. for help. It would have made a much better ending to the story and the whole volume if Thor had tackled and defeated the menace on his own.

Although there are some individual letdowns in the volume, overall it's very strong and shows a very good use of many of the series's elements yet doesn't deploy every single one of them. The grand epic is the high point of not just this volume but this period of Thor as a whole and having it all in one place makes for a very strong volume.

Friday, 13 November 2015

What If... Essential Captain Britain volume 1?

This time the look at hypothetical Essential volumes take a somewhat different series and format...

Essential Captain Britain volume 1 would contain the character's original stories from Captain Britain Weekly #1 to #39 and then the stories from Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain Weekly #231 to #253, including the reprint of Marvel Team-Up #65 and #66 in the last six issues with additional splash pages added when the two US issues were each split in three for the weekly format. These issues have had a mixture of reprints over the years in both the UK and US, starting with the 1978 Captain Britain annual but in the UK at least the best modern source are the trade paperbacks from Panini (who now hold the Marvel reprint licence in the UK), specifically volume 1 Birth of a Legend (which had two different covers), volume 2 A Hero Reborn and volume 3 The Lion and the Spider. Alternatively the issues were published in the US in two oversized hardcovers entitled Birth of a Legend and Siege of Camelot. The writing on the Weekly comic is first by Chris Claremont and then Gary Friedrich who carries onto the merged Super Spider-Man with help along the way on plots by Larry Lieber, Jim Lawrence and Bob Budiansky. Jim Lawrence then finishes off the Super Spider-Man issues and Claremont returns on Marvel Team-Up. The art on the UK stories is by Herb Trimpe, John Buscema, Ron Wilson, Jim Lawrence, Bob Budiansky and Pablo Marcos with John Byrne on the Marvel Team-Up stories.

For those less familiar with the British comics industry of old (and in to some extent this is still the same today), it differed from the US in a number of ways including retaining a younger focus for longer and used the weekly anthology format far more. "Free" gifts would sometimes come attached as a way to boost circulation at a launch, smooth over a price rise or help at relaunch moments. (Nowadays most British comics aimed at younger readers seem to come packed with multiple "free" gifts every issue.) Full colour was rarer, with many comics having some pages in black and white or in a three tone format that added a single colour and it was far from unusual for a strip to switch between colour, black and white or three tone in a single issue. Series would often contain multiple strips, some originated for the title, some imported reprints and some reuses of old strips, plus additional features. When a series was nearing cancellation, it would often be "merged" into another series, which in practice meant adding the main strips and the cancelled comic's title though over time both would be diminished. A disappeared series could also experience something of an after-life in the form of holiday specials, usually carrying reprints or left-over inventory material, and annuals, which here are hardback books mainly aimed at the Christmas market (normally carrying the following year's date although there have been exceptions) and again carried a mixture of strips, features and quizzes.

Superheroes are thinner on the ground here and the British generally aren't into massive flag waving American style overt patriotism. So creating a British version of Captain America and making them last seems rather a tall order. However that's not quite the way the character went. It is hardly an original observation to note that whilst Captain Britain's name may be derived from Captain America, the character owes rather more to Spider-Man with a small dose of Thor thrown in for the origin. Thus we get the tale of a university science student with an alliterative name, family members whom he tries to keep out of trouble, a struggling relationship with a girl, a campus bully and an authority figure with a heavy opposition to all costumed heroes in general and this one in particular. Then there are the dead parents, although this isn't established at the outset, and an investigation into their fate leads to conflict with the Red Skull. The costume also downplays the overt patriotic elements with the Union Jack confined to the top of his mask and wrist bracelets, whilst the heraldic lion isn't such an automatic symbol that screams "Britain". Otherwise, the main colour is red. The main Captain America influence can be found in the powers and weapon, with Captain Britain initially only have super strength and agility plus a predominantly defensive weapon, although as time goes on and other writers take over the quarterstaff is first revealed to also generate energy shields and blasts and is subsequently replaced by the Star Sceptre , a more ornate piece that additionally brings the power of flight. And the origin shows an ordinary man gaining powers thanks to mythical magic, though the wizard who co-grants them isn't explicitly named as Merlin for some time to come. So certainly there's a lot of borrowing from other characters even if not mainly from the most obvious one. However few ideas are truly original and it's the mix and blend that matter. Here there's a lot of originality and potential clear from the start.

But despite generating several hundred pages of material, the original Captain Britain strip lasted barely fifteen months. It's clear that Marvel had high hopes for the character and series but also that sales success was elusive and this shows in a succession of reactions. First, there's the resort to a big name guest star in the form of Captain America for quite a protracted run. (Nick Fury also appears but his own adventures were reprinted elsewhere in the comic.) Then there's a change of format with an expansion in the number of pages and strips masking a contraction as the title strip shifted to black and white. And then there was the cancellation of the title with a trumpeted merger really being a cover for dumping the remaining material in another title so as to salvage some of the costs. All of these developments took place within nine months. And whilst the continuation in Super Spider-Man may have allowed for the resolution of the existing storyline, the last few originated stories seem so detached and thrown together that it seems the merged comic was just treading water until the Marvel Team-Up story was available to be simultaneously printed in the UK and US. Otherwise, it would have faced the embarrassment of cancelling the feature only to revive the character within a matter of weeks. As a result the last weeks feel very patchy as though leftover ideas were grabbed and thrown in without too much thought for overall narrative coherence - e.g. why Captain Britain, in costume, has come to an island as part of a group visit goes unexplained - or continuity - for instance Betsy goes from being a commercial pilot to a professional model without explanation, beginning the long-running practice of making sudden changes to her without a coherent explanation. As a whole, the strip suffers from being constantly in a state of panic. But it also suffers from a lack of authenticity, and this may be the reason why 1970s readers didn't take to it in sufficient numbers. (Equally, it may be the case that Marvel had unrealistic expectations for the series, hoping for rather higher sales than for its all-reprint titles. I don't know if the strip had any contemporary printings in other countries but it's doubtful there was much additional income available to support it.)

Chris Claremont may have been born in the UK and Herb Trimpe may have lived in Cornwall for a while (and the spellings may be British and the British characters at least don't sloppily use "England"/"English") but fundamentally this strip feels far too American, writing about a stereotype of Britain gleaned more from films, television and the odd guidebook than from reality. Brian Braddock's Britain of the 1970s is an idealised land of moors, country houses, villages of superstitious people willing to burn anyone suspicious as a witch, super spy agencies, functioning London docks, a monarch who can easily take the fleet off to war with no one objecting and more. The dialogue is often Hollywood~ised, whether it's the excessive use of swearing and Cockney or subtler things such as British characters saying "Prime Minister Callaghan"/"Mr Prime Minister" for a surprising guest star when those US styles aren't used here. (Captain America and Nick Fury also use them but they at least have the excuse of being abroad.) The political elements of the stories are rather generic with Callaghan and Parliament's treatment being pretty interchangeable with any national leader and legislature apart from the iconic showdown when a bomb is planted on the face of Big Ben's clock. The Queen's appearance is surprising for the amount of actual power she's credited with, being able to call out the navy to go and reinstate a dictator with a touch of Ian Smith about him in the fictional nation of Umbezi. And the general style of the series is that of a conventional Marvel US superhero series, without any particular home-grown twists or humour. As a result, the strip doesn't feel particularly British in spite of the name or location. It's little wonder it spent so much of its brief existence trying to find a way to survive.

It also doesn't help that at times the strip wanders all over the place, with ideas introduced and then rapidly changed. This is most notable in the way that Dr. Synne is changed from a magician to a man controlled by an advanced computer and then before the computer can be taken on and deactivated, it falls under the control of the Red Skull but becomes only a minor part of his overall plot. Braddock Manor gets blown up during the story and the computer is ultimately ignored. The sudden change of approach to the villains is reflective of a wider shift as Gary Friedrich takes over the writing from Chris Claremont and shifts the series even more in the direction of a generic superhero series. And just as the UK entered a year of patriotic celebration of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the strip drifts into the American national myth of coming in and saving the British from the Nazis with the arrival of both Captain America and Nick Fury in order to battle the Red Skull.

There aren't many recurring foes in these tales though a number of the villains introduced here have since popped up in other Marvel stories. The origin villain is the rather forgettable Joshua Stragg the Reaver, seemingly a businessman trying to corner the market in nuclear energy through the use of a hi-tech assault force to attack research centres and kidnap scientists. In pursuit of Brian he picks up the sword his quarry has rejected and becomes a powerful knight who is soon dispatched. Subsequent foes include the Vixen's mob of hi-tech bank robbers, the Hurricane with wind powers, the dark dream generating magician turned old man powered by a computer Dr Synne, the aforementioned but unnamed super computer and its projection Mastermind, the scientist Lord Hawk with his robotic bird of prey, the Mind-Monster who inhabits another realm alongside Merlin, Nykonn the other-dimensional dark magician, the motorcycling thug the Highway Man, his employer the Manipulator who is actually the deposed white dictator of a southern African nation seeking restoration through mind controlling the Queen, the alien Lurker from Loch Ness with a ship that has come to resemble the Loch Ness Monster, the Black Baron who is both vampire and werewolf, Doctor Claw the mad scientist on a remote island, and the serial killer the Slaymaster who targets collectors and steals their most valuable objects. The Marvel Team-Up issues introduce the bizarre assassin Arcade with his funhouse of terror, as well as briefly establishing a Maggia interest only to kill them off in a subplot. But by far the longest running and most established villain to appear is the Red Skull with a scheme to either take over or destroy the UK by holding the Prime Minister hostage in order to get Parliament to surrender. As the contemporary Chancellor (and one of the strongest candidates to replace him) would say of this nonsensical approach, "Silly Billy!"

But the most recurrent problem for Captain Britain is Detective Chief Inspector Dai Thomas of the Metropolitan Police. As with most fictional police officers his jurisdiction runs wherever the story needs it, and he brings a recurrent threat to Captain Britain. Though used somewhat to fill the J. Jonah Jameson role, he is actually a very believable antagonist since an official police officer is naturally going to be hostile to superheroes running around as self-appointed vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. And his background is expounded upon to explain that he's even more hostile than other authority figures because on a trip to New York his wife was a bystander killed during a superhero battle. Nor is he selective in his discrimination, being just as hostile to Captain America. As a result, he comes across as a well rounded character with an understandable motivation for his hostility to the hero. The series initially offers a contrast in the role of good cop Detective Inspector Kate Fraser who proves much more sympathetic to Captain Britain, but she's forgotten amidst the change of writers. Both had previously had bit parts in Marvel US titles and serve to help subtly connect these adventures to the mainstream Marvel universe being published over in the US (indeed the main name used for it today was introduced in a later Captain Britain story). The rest of the authority side of the cast comes in the UK's answer to S.H.I.E.L.D. - Strike - Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies, yet another in the long line of agencies whose names seem to have been chosen more for creating a memorable acronyms than anything else. Both it and its director, Commander Lance Hunter, recur throughout the run with a strong indication that Captain Britain will eventually be conscripted to work for the agency.

The non-costumed side of Brian's life also brings a somewhat underused supporting case. Thames University seems a rather generic institution, not based on anywhere specific but rather an institution that can support as diverse a range of plots as possible. Amongst Brian's fellow students are Courtney Ross, the inevitable romantic interest, and Jacko Tanner, the campus bully and rival for Courtney's affections. When Courtney is a bystander injured in a battle Captain Britain is rather too open about his concern for her. Later on Arcade deduces enough to kidnap Courtney and use her as bait in her funhouse, suggesting Brian is rather too loose with his identity. His siblings, Betsy and Jamie, also discover it quite quickly. Betsy here demonstrates hints of her psychic powers that she will later use heavily in X-Men but otherwise is something of a blank slate available as a recurring damsel in distress despite being a working women in either aviation or modelling depending upon the writer. Jamie is more consistent as a racing car driver who tries to help his brother more than he should, to the point that Brian eventually resorts to tying his sibling up to keep him from danger. Brian is given guilt to carry that his parents were electrocuted by the supercomputer in the mansion basement whilst he was out with a girl, but it's hard to rationally accept anything as his fault. There's no reason why he would have been with them below stairs, nor could he have spotted the danger in time. And where were Betsy and Jamie at the time and why don't they carry any guilt? It's another part of the attempt to copy the elements of Spider-Man but failing to make them convincing.

Apart from the final six issues, these stories were all originally written for a weekly format of just seven pages at a time (though a couple of issues go to eight pages and pass off the final page in black and white as "A Captain Britain do-it-yourself colour page!"). It's quite a constraining format without that much space to develop characters and subplots but at the same time it's easier to run lengthy stories as the action continues week from week. Wisely the story lengths are variable rather than trying to line up to three issues at a time that could then be collected in the US format; however some storylines run on for more weeks than there's plot for and sometimes it takes two issues before revelations promised in the next issue caption are delivered upon. The art is generally strong as well though the artists take time to remember these were originally published on a larger page than a US title and so have more room to work with. The final six issues constitute the reprint of Captain Britain's first US appearance in Marvel Team-Up. Being reproduced so quickly in the UK allowed for extra splash pages to be produced for individual chapters. These manage to slot in quite nicely (although they were only done in black and white so can look odd when combined with the colour pages from the US) without disrupting the story flow at all.

But despite the writers and artists adapting to the format well, overall it's hard to disguise just how weak the original Captain Britain stories are. The basic problem seems to be a belief that sticking a superhero in the UK and slapping around some names and Union Jacks would deliver strong results when instead it delivers a rather inauthentic piece. US fiction in many different mediums has been popular in the UK but it rarely tries to pretend it's a great local thing. As a result the series struggled then and now as not sufficiently convincing but the wrong conclusions were drawn leading to a state of flux and panic throughout the strip's lifetime until it was just treading water before a key US appearance. These adventures are very disappointing to read even today.

Should they have had an Essential edition? It's hard to say. One thing where an Essential edition would have helped is in standardising everything in black and white. The "Captain Britain do-it-yourself colour pages!" do stand out in the trade paperbacks (although colour versions were done for the 1978 annual that have been reused since) and the Marvel Team-Up issues were never meant to be read as a hybrid of original US colour material and additional UK black and white material so again an Essential could remove the jar. More pertinently the main strip went black and white from issue #24 onwards, midway through the Red Skull storyline so having it all in black and white would help. But although the format itself would offer advantages, the material quality raises real questions. Were these the only Captain Britain stories then they are frankly so poor they could be easily forgotten, leaving the Essentials to focus exclusively on Marvel's US output. But some of the later Captain Britain stories were landmarks that might be worthy of a volume 2 - which by definition would need a volume 1 to come first. The stories have had reprints on both sides of the Atlantic so there is clearly a market for them but they're not something that really needs to be collected in every library style format.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Essential X-Men volume 10

Essential X-Men volume 10 consists of Uncanny X-Men #265 to #272 & Annual #14 plus New Mutants #95 to #97 and the lead story from Annual #6, X-Factor #60 to #62 and the lead story from Annual #5, and the lead story from Fantastic Four Annual #23. Bonus material includes Cameron Hodge's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. All the Uncanny X-Men material is written by Chris Claremont, all the New Mutants and X-Factor material by Louise Simonson and the Fantastic Four annual by Walter Simonson. The Uncanny X-Men issues are mainly drawn by Jim Lee with individual ones by Bill Jaaska and Mike Collins and the annual by Arthur Adams and Mark Heike. The New Mutants issues are drawn by Rob Liefeld and Guang Yap with the annual by Terry Shoemaker & Chris Wozniak, the X-Factor issues and annual by Jon Bogdanove, and the Fantastic Four annual by Jackson Guice. With so many series and creators there's invariably a separate labels post.

Even more than any other Essential volume this one is absolutely dominated by crossovers to the point that there are just five issues plus an annual back up story that haven't been reproduced elsewhere in the Essentials. It's a sign of how the mutant titles were becoming ever more a self-contained franchise with routine crossovers between them that only rarely gave any other series a look in. Otherwise the franchise effect would keep on growing throughout the 1990s, reaching its climax just a few years later when part of the big corporate changes dubbed "Marvelution" saw the line divided into separate groups with their own editorial oversight and limited interaction between them, leaving them as their own introverted world constantly crossing over with one another and not much else. It's here that that road really began.

Of course the crossovers were not totally self-contained at first, with all the 1990 mutant annuals crossing over with the Fantastic Four annual to tell the story of "Days of Future Present", a sequel to the classic X-Men tale. But whereas the earlier tale was the epitome of the mutants' struggle for acceptance and freedom with a horrific fate shown if they failed, this story ignores most of those themes and instead just focuses on individuals as an adult Franklin Richards arrives from the alternate future and journeys through the sites of his happy childhood memories, using his reality altering powers to "correct" things as he goes. From a modern perspective there's something chilling about the way Franklin looks at the New York skyline and decides that X-Factor's ship does not belong so casually makes it vanish, before contemplating a revised scene that includes the World Trade Center twin towers. Franklin's actions attract the involvement of multiple teams and also that of Ahab the mutant hunter from his own timeline who enslaved Rachel. Although Forge and Banshee are soon caught up in the story, the regular X-Men of this period only get involved when the conclusion comes in their own annual and it's here that the story winds up trying to do too much. There's a lot revolving around Rachel Summers, who has been noticeably absent from the title for some years, as she has her first encounter with back from the dead mother Jean Grey, finally confirms to Cyclops that she is his daughter from the future, and meets with Franklin, her partner from her own time. But the story also casually starts the process of reuniting the scattered X-Men as Storm turns up at the ruins of the mansion, revealing to the wider world that she's been alive all this time. One problem this collected edition does at least smooth out is the publication order, with the annual originally coming out a few issues too early for developments relating to Storm but here it has been placed in a more reasonable position and so correcting the narrative flow. This does, however, mean that it's easy to overlook the fact that this was the first actual published appearance of the newest of the X-Men, Gambit, with his debut now a more logical issue #266. The Uncanny X-Men annual also includes a back-up in which Franklin and Rachel briefly encounter Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee in Madripoor where Logan of all people turns into the conscience of the X-Men, very briefly summarising their history and core values as he expounds on the teachings of Professor Xavier. Normally such a story would be a simple piece of forgettable annual fluff but here it ties in well to the main events without rushing the rest of the X-Men's reunion. But overall "Days of Future Present" is way too long for the actual amount of action and development that it contains. Too much of the story involves the repetitiveness of the adult Franklin arriving somewhere and altering it with the various heroes then clashing with Ahab. Comparisons with "Days of Future Past" are automatic and this storyline simply can't hold a candle to it.

The annual crossover isn't the only issue when the wider Marvel universe gets a look in. Issue #268, which also supplies the cover to the volume, sees a special adventure in Madripoor as Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee team up with the Black Widow to battle Fenris, the children of Baron Strucker, and the Hand ninjas with a flashback to another adventure there nearly fifty years earlier when Logan teamed up with a young Captain America and saved a very young Black Widow from Strucker and the Hand. It's a story that's big on memorable imagery and pays tribute to the pulp heroes of the era, right down to Logan dressing like Indiana Jones, but it's also a rather light weight story that raises more questions than it answers. Captain America's career during the Second World War has been subject to rewritings, retcons and a partial wiping of the slate so it's not too hard a stretch to imagine him on an early mission in the Far East though making him yet another previously unmentioned significant ally from Wolverine's past opens up questions about why this has never come up during more recent team-ups. But the Black Widow is suddenly given needless layers of her past. An early 1970s story had established her as an infant survivor of Stalingrad but that was at a time when the war was recent enough to credibly be part of her childhood. Twenty years later it was less credible for her to have been a wartime child yet not only was this aspect of the character reinforced instead of being ignored but it's even questioned in story as Jubilee thinks that it's impossible for Natasha to be that old. The story feels like it was written both to meet the desires of the artist and to salute Captain America's forthcoming fiftieth anniversary celebrations but it winds up as an inconsequential tale at a point when the series really needs to be moving forward and catching up with all the remaining X-Men and bring them back together.

The other early issues make some progress on this, with a three part epic bringing Storm's story up to date as she flees agents of the Shadow King, encounters Gambit for the first time and has a final showdown with Nanny. The explanation for how Storm survived a seeming death that left a body behind feels a little too convenient a retcon even though this was almost certainly the plan from the outset. However it's a surprise that Ororo isn't restored to her adult form when she regains her memories and full use of her powers and instead spends subsequent issues trying to be a leader to the remnants of the X-Men and various spin-off teams yet frequently being doubted because of her reduced physical age. At the same time we get the addition of Gambit who quickly becomes an archetype for 1990s comic heroes by being a mysterious man in a long coat. His Louisiana French accent remains strong in his dialogue throughout but his motivations for joining the X-Men, in so far as staying with Storm constitutes joining, are more for survival now that the Shadow King will be after him as well than any great attachment to Xavier's dream.

More convoluted is the solitary issue devoted to Rogue as she finally reappears, coming back to the Outback town where she faces the Reavers before fleeing to the Savage Land. But the main focus is on her relationship with the personality of Ms. Marvel. The Siege Perilous has recreated Rogue and Ms. Marvel as separate beings and it's not terribly clear that the latter is a different entity from the actual Ms. Marvel, now Binary. (Just to add to the confusion the Fantastic Four annual is from the period when their membership included the "She-Thing" Sharon Venture - aka another Ms. Marvel!) The two battle it out with an interlude as Rogue escapes to the Savage Land and Ms. Marvel to Muir Island where she's possessed by the Shadow King, before a final showdown that reveals the two cannot exist separately and one must die for the other to survive. It's a somewhat rushed resolution to Rogue's longstanding guilt as the legacy of her worst action is literally removed from her.

The narrative flow of the X-Men being scattered and slowly brought back together is rather disrupted by the "X-Tinction Agenda" crossover. Despite being the first mutant crossover with a clear order to the point that each chapter is numbered, this a sprawling mess with key events almost glossed over or taking place off panel and endless repetitive action in which the art is often taking precedence over the narrative. Over the course of the story most of the X-Men are not only brought together but also resume contact with both the New Mutants and X-Factor, thus ending both the long running deception of being dead and the more recent non-team era. However what should be major developments are treated in such a matter of fact that it's easy to miss them. It's also not entirely clear how Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee knew to make their way to Genosha. Nor is it explained just why Havok, who finally reappears many issues after going through the Siege Perilous, has been recreated in a supposed paradise of being an officer in a repressive force under a totalitarian regime. The story is driven by the kidnapping of Storm and several New Mutants and their being taken to Genosha with the rest of the New Mutants and X-Factor launching a rescue mission. As a sequel to a prominent X-Men storyline and with the main villain being Cameron Hodge, who has previously battled both X-Factor and the New Mutants, the story tries to feel like a natural intersection of all three titles but suffers from having come too soon for the X-Men. Storm's altered form is dealt with and Havok opts to leave the team to stay in Genosha and help with the new order so there is at least some development beyond the botched reunification but overall it's a demonstration of how messy crossovers would stomp into titles at awkward moments, a trend that would only grow throughout the 1990s.

As a whole this volume shows a series struggling to advance its own narrative and direction amidst a weight of wider crossovers that swamp out the page count. Contemporary readers "had" to spend even more just to get a complete story and here the Uncanny X-Men issues aren't able to do much in the time available to them, leaving some incoherent messes in both the solo and crossover issues. The title has not been served well by the protracted separate non-team approach and this volume is still stuck in the quagmire with the seeming resolution to the era almost muted. This is a series where the narrative is sinking into a mess amidst the stylised artwork.

Essential X-Men volume 10 - creator labels

Once again there's a volume with a lot of creators so here's the separate labels post.
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