Friday, 8 January 2016

Twelve recommended Essentials

For my final post, I have decided to pick twelve volumes that especially stand out. The only restriction is that there is no more than one from each series. These aren't automatically the best stories - and the nature of the beast is that there are times when the incredibly good is collected with the incredibly dire - but twelve cases of the Essential series at its best. And the order has been chosen by lot.


Essential Moon Knight volume 2

Contains: Moon Knight #11 to #30

Moon Knight began as a foe for the Werewolf and then developed in the direction of a Batman clone but also acquired his own themes and the unique feature of his multiple identities that started to take on lives of their own. It took a while but soon it had found its own niche and cult following. This was one of the first series to be sold only in the direct market and it took full advantage of the shift to offer varied length stories that are free of the Comics Code Authority restrictions yet never being puerile or gratuitous just to show off its freedom. This volume represents by the middle issues of the series when it was at its height.


Essential Captain America volume 4

Contains: Captain America and the Falcon #157 to #186

Captain America was originally created during a great wave of patriotism and revived during another. But by the 1970s the US was changing and Cap seemed a man out of time in more ways than one. Then came new writer Steve Englehart who, together with artist Sal Buscema, set out to explore just what Cap's role is in this new world where the old certainties are gone and it's no longer so clear just what "serving my country" means anymore. The height of this approach comes in the Secret Empire story as Cap discovers a conspiracy that goes to the very highest levels, which in turn leads him to abandon his costume and the Falcon steps up to the forefront as the country is still facing threats.


Essential Dazzler volume 1

Contains: Dazzler #1 to #21 plus X-Men #130 & #131 and Amazing Spider-Man #203

When this was first announced many declared "Essential Dazzler" to be an oxymoron. But the Essentials have brought attention to many obscure series and characters, allowing them to be assessed anew without listening to decades old myths and assertions. This volume collects the first half of her series, allowing readers to judge for themselves and see a series that isn't the disco chaser of myth but instead shows a strong independent ordinary character trying to get by in life with the added complication of her powers. The Essential volume is a well-deserved rescue from obscurity.


Essential Black Panther volume 1

Contains: Jungle Action #6 to #22 & #24 and Black Panther #1 to #10

"Panther's Rage" was one of the first comic storylines to be written as though it was to be collected as chapters in a book and this volume does that and more so. Very often the biggest developments in comics are made in obscure series starring less well-known characters, and here is almost the definitive example of a hidden classic plus the start of "The Panther vs. the Klan!", taking the character to further heights. Sadly the volume also demonstrates how the Essentials scoop up the bad as well as the good with the start of Jack Kirby's run on the title that might as well be from an alternate reality, but that doesn't detract from the majesty of the bulk of the volume.


Essential X-Men volume 2

Contains: X-Men #120 to #144 and, in later editions, Annual #3 to #4

The All-New All-Different X-Men burst forth in the mid 1970s, presenting a highly crafted team of strong, well-defined characters who were put through a variety of situations. This volume covers the latter part of the Chris Claremont and John Byrne run when the team faced a range of scenarios from Alpha Flight trying to reclaim Wolverine for the Canadian government to Arcade subjecting them to his funhouse of horrors, but the high points come with two of the most influential X-Men stories of all time, the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" which explore the problems with controlling great power and the dangers of anti-mutant prejudice run wild respectively.


Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1

Contains: Rawhide Kid #17 to #35

Marvel have printed many titles in numerous different genres over the years but haven't reprinted too many of them in recent years. But when they do it's often an eye opener. This volume is the sole Essential representation of the western genre, offering a good set of done in one enjoyable stories that mix the adventures of the lead character with other generic tales of the west. Very much a representation of the Atlas style before the Marvel superhero revolution, this volume is nevertheless a good, light fun read.


Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

Contains: Ghost Rider #66 to #81 plus Amazing Spider-Man #274 and New Defenders #145 & a bit of #146

It's rare for a long running series to end in a truly satisfactory way but Ghost Rider got one of the best conclusions going, allowing him to ride out on a high in what almost feels like it was the long term plan. The Ghost Rider may have begun as a fusion of the horror and stunt fads of the 1970s but he outlasted the fads to become something much stronger. Here the long running saga of the battle between Johnny Blaze and the demonic Ghost Rider reaches its climax here but there's time taken to remind and reintroduce the key elements for readers who haven't been along for the whole journey before the final end.


Essential Thor volume 3

Contains: Thor #137 to #166

Thor was a title that took a good while to really find its feet and get a long term permanent creative team but once it did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby proceeded to produce an amazing run of tales that combine Norse mythology and cosmic space adventure, with occasional interludes on Earth. By the time of this volume they had found out what worked and defined the character, with the stories here representing the absolute peak of their collaboration, ranging from battling the Mangog in Asgard to the conflict between Galactus and Ego the Living Planet in deep space. Truly this is the definitive Thor.


Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 2

Contains: Marvel Team-Up #25 to #51 plus Marvel Two-in-One #17

There's a sense of fun to a team-up book, often allowing the chance to enjoy both the regular and guest heroes in some nice one-off tales that don't require too much familiarity with the guests to follow them. But when in the right hands they can be even more. This volume contains some of the best of all the team-ups, ranging from the silliness of a team-up with Hercules where he tows the island of Manhattan through the seas to the deadly grittiness of a time travel saga that takes Spider-Man back to Salem in 1692 for a dark battle against the backdrop of the witch trials. This is a book that knows how to put together an epic out of several different guest stars and put the leads, whether Spider-Man or the Human Torch, through adventures they'd be unlikely to have in their own titles.


Essential Punisher volume 4

Contains: Punisher #41 to #59 and Annuals #4 to #5

The Punisher has always been a difficult character to handle because the approach of a self-appointed executioner is often at odds with conventional superhero ethics whilst the high fatality rate amongst both his foes and allies leaves limited scope for character development. It took a long time before he received an ongoing series and then in turn it took longer to really flesh it out but by the time of this volume it was coming together nicely. Here we get a mixture of traditional one-off tales against individual foes done well along with steps towards greater development with the handful of foes who have greater lasting power, most notably "The Final Days" epic that puts the Punisher in a marathon of endurance under pressure from the Kingpin.


Essential Warlock volume 1

Contains: Marvel Premiere #1 to #2, The Power of Warlock #1 to #8, Incredible Hulk #176 to #178, Strange Tales #178 to #181, Warlock #9 to #15, Marvel Team-Up #55, Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2

Warlock was a highly experimental strip that routinely sought to push the boundaries of what was possible, most notably with its approach to religion. The volume collects the two 1970s epics that saw Warlock first go to Counter-Earth to drive out a dark force and redeem it and then into deep space to take on the corruption and hypocrisy of an inter-galactic church presided over by none other than his evil future self. The title character has no desire to be a hero and is merely a good man searching for himself but gets caught up in the horrors all around him. Twice the title was cancelled but each time the saga showed it could survive by resolving itself in another series with a spectacular climax.


Essential Spider-Man volume 1

Contains: Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 to #20 & Annual #1

This volume encapsulates just why Spider-Man took off the way he did. It covers the single most creative period in the character's history, introduces most of the top villains and tells some amazing stories all at once. Spider-Man broke the mould in many ways and even today these tales stand up well as a strong set of adventures that need no replacement. Bringing big chunks of the Silver Age at affordable prices was one of the aims of the Essentials and it hit the ground running. This was the very first Essential I ever picked up and it's still great to this day.

Never say never

Okay I have now reviewed all the Essential volumes plus may other bits and pieces. For now this blog will be resting, with a top twelve retrospective coming up in a moment.

For those who want to see other reviews there are many sites out there but Essential Showcase has been methodically going through not just all the Marvel Essentials but also the DC Showcase Presents and is well worth many a look.

I won't make a definitive statement about whether I'll do any further posts as you can never know what will happen. For now, I'll just say it's been very enjoyable to do this blog and get feedback from the readers. All the best!

Friday, 1 January 2016

What If... Essential Deadpool volume 1?

For a final look at a hypothetical Essential volume I turn to one of Marvel's biggest latter-day stars, the Merc with a Mouth in the days when he first became the Merc with a Monthly, the one and only Deadpool!

Woo hoo it's me!

Oh no! No! NO!

Hey I finally made it onto your blog!

Oh no you don't! Didn't you pay attention? You didn't know you were a comic character until the Writer of Death showed up and those issues aren't until later.

Yeah but you're inserting me into older material. And it wasn't quite Priest who...

Look let's stop this now. I'm the one with the keyboard, I'm the one who can type blanks into all your weapons - and I don't just mean your guns - and I'm not having another of these conversations. You have two choices - either p*** off and star in another film or I make like Fox and sew your f***ing mouth shut. GOT IT?!

Your funeral pal. See you in the funnier pages. Toodle-oo!

Now that that's over, back to normal service...

Essential Deadpool volume 1 would contain his first appearance in New Mutants #98, the two four-part limited series Deadpool: The Circle Chase and Deadpool: All New X-Men Limited Series (well that's what it says on the cover; it's also been called "Sins of the Past" in places) plus issues #1 to #11 & #-1 from his first ongoing series and the crossover annual Daredevil/Deadpool '97 as well as a guest appearance in the back-up story from Avengers #366 which ties in with the first limited series. That would make for a larger than usual volume but Deadpool's done this sort of thing before.

The bulk of the material can be found in Deadpool Classic volumes 1, 2 & 3 but the Avengers appearance is in Deadpool Classic Companion, an extra volume devoted to all those appearances sequential reprints often ignore. This doesn't include every early Deadpool appearance ever - in particular there are some X-Force storylines absent that would otherwise overwhelm any collected edition - but it catches his early years quite well. Otherwise, most of the earliest Deadpool limited and ongoing issues looked at here have been collected in a variety of editions, released in multiple countries and languages. The most complete source for the ongoing title is the Deadpool by Joe Kelly Omnibus.

(And for those wondering where the cover image has come from, it's a piece that did the rounds when the ongoing series was launched and is now probably best known as the cover for the trade paperback Deadpool: Mission Improbable which reprinted the first five ongoing issues back in 1998. Yes the standard practice for Essentials in the 21st century has been to use art from the original comics but since when did Deadpool ever conform to standard? And the obvious alternative image from New Mutants #98, as used on Deadpool Classic volume 1, is just hideous. It's unsurprising both the Italian edition and the British edition with just the two limited series went for the cover of the first issue of the second series, but this is a better option.)

Deadpool's first appearance in New Mutants is plotted & drawn by Rob Liefeld and scripted by Fabian Nicieza. The Circle Chase is written by Nicieza and drawn by Joe Madureira whilst the second limited series is written by Mark Waid and drawn by Ian Churchill, Lee Weeks and Ken Lashley. The ongoing series, including the "Flashback" and annual, is written by Joe Kelly with help from Pete Woods on one issue and contributions of a different kind from Stan Lee on another. The art on the series is mostly by Ed McGuinness with some issues by Kevin Lau, Shannon Denton and John Fang whilst John Romita contributes in a way on one issue whilst the "Flashback" issue #-1 is drawn by Aaron Lopresti and the annual by Bernard Chang. The Avengers story is written by Glenn Herdling and drawn by Mike Gustovich. Invariably this means there's a separate labels post. And I see someone has already done the dialogue for it. Grr...

This volume would cover an interesting and turbulent period in the comics market with Marvel and its travails often at the centre of the storm. During the early 1990s there was a massive rise in overall sales accompanied by a huge increase in the volume of titles and many characters received their own limited or ongoing series, with Deadpool amongst them. But it was notable that very few of Marvel's new titles lasted any length of time outside of the X-Men and Spider-Man families. (Exactly how few is subject to a few myths so worth checking in detail.) After a flurry of lasting successes launched in 1990 such as Namor the Sub-Mariner, Ghost Rider, Guardians of the Galaxy, New Warriors and even Barbie and Barbie Fashion, Marvel entered a long run of misses. Over the next six years many titles were launched but outside the Spider-Man and X-Men families only six series lasted more than three years - Darkhawk, Warlock and the Infinity Watch, Punisher War Zone, Spider-Man 2099 (counting that as a 2099 family title rather than a Spider-Man one), The Ren & Stimpy Show and Doom 2099. The last of these launched in early 1993 and all of these had gone by late 1996.

Meanwhile the various Marvel companies and divisions got involved in some complicated chaotic financial dealings that led to actions that exacerbated problems in the North American comics market, contributing to a massive crash, roughly around the time of Deadpool's second limited series and over the next few years Marvel lurched through a series of crisis decisions that saw many titles axed and several long running superhero titles farmed out to Image creators. The bleakest moment came in late 1996 with the announcement that Marvel had filed for bankruptcy protection. It seemed as though the creative edge had gone out of Marvel and few expected any new series to last.

Yet out of that winter came two series that did manage to last for a good number of years and show that Marvel had now got its mojo back. The second of these titles was Thunderbolts. The first was Deadpool.

But reading Deadpool's first appearance from some six years earlier there's nothing that hints at this. He may be the most prominent character on the cover of New Mutants #98 (with the element later lifted for the first of his Classic series) but within the story he's a one note character whose primary purpose is to establish the skill of another new character, Domino. Deadpool fights Cable and the other New Mutants before being overcome upon Domino's arrival and is then mailed to his employer with the implication that will be the end of him. As first appearances go it's extremely underwhelming though it establishes Deadpool as a rather chatty mercenary who just won't shut up. He would pop up again and again in the replacement title X-Force before benefiting from the massive explosion in the number of titles in the early 1990s in which even the most obscure character could get a limited series.

With the great explosion of came some titles came some not so great product and that's apparent here. The Circle Chase is primarily a quest series with Deadpool and a whole range of other characters hunting for an ultimate weapon mentioned in the will of the unseen Mr Tolliver. The quest spills over into a back-up story in the 30th anniversary Avengers issue which otherwise focuses on the Black Knight's battle with his squire turned evil, the Blood Wraith. The appearance here of Deadpool, and indeed the one-off Plug-Uglies - Flame and Foam - also searching for the weapon, provides a wider conflict to ensnare the Blood Wraith but otherwise is mainly incidental to the story, though there's a scene where Victoria Bentley is confused for Deadpool, something that can't happen that often. Even Deadpool's dialogue is tame, showing how difficult a character he is to write for.

Back in the regular series we're reintroduced to other elements of Deadpool's life such as his technician "Weasel", his artificial healing factor, his personal history with the mutant Copycat aka Vanessa and so forth. But the storyline itself is lame, consisting of a series of fights around the globe with the likes of Weapon X, Slayback, the Juggernaut, Black Tom Cassidy and various lesser foes, before a climax in which the weapon is revealed to be the least offensive tool imaginable and Deadpool saves himself through logic and selflessness in acting to heal Copycat. Overall this limited series just isn't anything to set the world on fire and is an unfortunate start to Deadpool's solo tales.

The US comics market was starting to go into freefall by the time the second limited series came along, but that may have been to the title's effect by increasing the talent available. This limited series is far more personal to Deadpool, focusing upon his history with the Weapon X project and as a mercenary plus his friendship with the X-Force member Siryn under the disapproving watch of her father Banshee. The story deals head on with one of the character's biggest problems, namely that his healing factor is so powerful that it removes any real sense of danger for the character. Here he has to come to terms with the factor failing and find a way to restore it, as well as a repeated encounter with the Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy, the latter now needing some healing of his own. It's a good little personally focused story, of the kind that the limited series format is best for. The only new character of any significance is Dr Killebrew, the geneticist responsible for Deadpool's healing factor in the first place and thus has good potential for recurring appearances over the years. Otherwise we get a movement of the lead character towards the more wacky side that would come into full force with the ongoing series.

Deadpool's ongoing title began in late 1996 and it's easy to forget now just how revolutionary or niche it often was. This series began before the regular South Park series launched, before the first Austin Powers movie had come out and indeed before much of the explosion of cartoony style adult humour series. Indeed at times it seems to be setting the trends. Marvel had done humorous titles before but never a mainstream universe superhero title with such a bizarre wackiness to it. This is a very experimental title that does its own thing, with a character highly different from the norm.

It's also easy to forget, especially now with such a major movie about to come out, that this was a title that was constantly fighting to survive and at times only holding on by the skin of its teeth. From memory Marvel announced its cancellation more than once and there was a big "Save Deadpool" campaign, trying to increase the number of subscribers to secure extra sales in advance. Marvel's then-recent track record on cancelling titles was not encouraging. Few honestly expected the series to last at all and expected Deadpool to then drop into obscurity. To predict the character's present day popularity and sales would have marked one as mad as the character. And yet somehow the book managed to last so long.

It's probable that Deadpool primarily survived because the series was so different from everything else the company was putting out and thus probably bringing in readers that Marvel otherwise couldn't reach. And the cancellation threat itself was oddly beneficial to the series, allowing the creators to experiment as much as they did because they had nothing to lose. The result was something truly amazing.

Now sure the issues contained here, covering the first year of the title, include some typical Marvel superhero comic clichés. There are the guest appearances, both by characters Deadpool has a history with and those with no previous connection. There's an encounter with a superhero team, allowing the Avengers logo to appear on the cover. There's a whole issue devoted to a Spider-Man encounter. There's some exploration of the character's past and origins. There's a supporting cast established, including an over helpful sidekick role, a recurring antagonist in day to day business and an elderly lady. And the storylines vary in length from done in one tales to multi-part sagas that try to go into more detail.

But it's the whole approach that is so different. It's best to think of the series as like an adult cartoon, with a foulmouthed anti-hero as the protagonist and some quite wacky and offbeat situations encountered along the way. The conventions are rarely conformed to but instead often sent up in their own wild and wacky way. Deadpool is slowly drifting towards herodom but it's a long journey for Wade Wilson, in spite of the hopes of Landau, Luckman and Lake in a long running subplot. Early on the healing factor is toned down, allowing for more tension. There's also a very unusual guest cast.

Weasel continues to help Deadpool from time to time, playing a pivotal role in the last issue as we learn more about his past and just how long an influence Wade has had on him. He makes for a likeable supporter who sticks by Deadpool in spite of everything and it works. More curious is Blind Al, an elderly woman who lives with Deadpool and we slowly discover she is his prisoner who has become accustomed to her situation despite all the crap she has to deal with. The exchanges between the two makes for a tricky relationship with each unable to admit how much they are dependent on the other. It can also set Deadpool back in the field, especially when Al sabotages his weapons.

As well as Deadpool's own home he also spends a lot of time at the "Hellhouse", a sort of community centre for mercenaries to hang out, collect assignments from the runner Patch and maintain tense relations with one another. Deadpool's main recurring rival in the series is the mercenary T-Ray, though the antagonism is not fully explored at this stage. There aren't too many new foes introduced at this stage with the main new one being Deathtrap who captures Deadpool and subjects him to a highly surreal situation. Otherwise the foes are drawn from a variety of other Marvel titles with appearances by the likes of Taskmaster, Vamp (one of the more obscure Captain America foes), Typhoid Mary and Kraven the Hunter.

The potential list of guest stars was not great if the title was consciously trying to avoid encounters with the X-Men family at this stage. A good chunk of big name heroes were absent because of the transfer to the Heroes Reborn pocket universe, but that proves advantageous in forcing a more experimental approach with those that are left. The first issue features Sasquatch, between stretches in Alpha Flight, with the traditional misunderstanding, fight and then team-up. Later on we get an appearance by Siryn which sets out just what Deadpool actually means to her. The handling of his rather creepy stalking her and hovering outside her bedroom window is a bit tame though. There's a tense encounter with the Hulk, at this point in his most inhospitable with Bruce Banner having been torn out of him. But the most memorable tales come with three other guest stars.

An extended story with Typhoid Mary leads to a crossover with Daredevil in the annual but this is different from what has come before. Although many a prior annual has contained a guest star joining the regular hero (and some have forgotten which is which), this one is the first to give joint billing to both stars. It was a successful experiment that led to nearly every annual the following year being such a team-up book. The story itself provides a strong contrast between Deadpool's wackiness and the traditional darkness of Daredevil, adding in a twist from the latter's past as he discovers just how responsible for Typhoid Mary's life he really is. Meanwhile Weasel and Foggy Nelson go out on the town, with the consequence that Deuce the Devil Dog changes owner and titles. A dog companion is part of old comics silliness that feels totally at home in Deadpool's title.

But two other guest appearances at the end of the selection are even more amazing. First come, wait for it, the Great Lakes Avengers. Sorry, a correction. At this point they had brought out of the Avengers franchise (the actual team being disbanded and presumed dead can't have helped) and were now "the west coast adjunct to the Thunderbolts... the Lightning Rods! Attracting malignancy away from those it would see electrocuted in its negatively charged grip of evil!" This was the first time the team changed their name, although the cover of issue #10 retains the original. On their few prior appearances the GLA Lightning Rods have been treated as a joke aspiring to Avengers membership and here they encounter Deadpool at an aquarium resulting in total chaos as they fight. By this stage the series has settled into a fantastic alternate cartoon approach and this works incredibly well.

Before we get to the final issue though, a quick word about the "Flashback Month" issue. And frankly #-1 is an example of where the gimmick completely failed. It was published in the middle of the Typhoid Mary storyline (and thus has had to be relocated to before it for collected editions), apologies for the interruption but doesn't really tie into anything in the ongoing series beyond the interest in Deadpool by Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman and Lake. And here her investigations only bring her into indirect contact with Wade, instead focusing upon Vanessa when she worked the streets. A character called Montgomery is created for the story seemingly only to allow a cover image of a terribly burned face. Overall we have the mess of trying to create a Silver Age retro feel for the most Modern Age of characters, made worse by the issue not actually focusing upon him at all. To top it off we now have to accept that the Landau, Luckman and Lake interest in Deadpool has been going for at least a decade, which may be a commentary on how long some subplots last but feels more like a product of trying to come up with anything that could tie in with the current title. Going by the issues in this selection alone, one could easily skip #-1 and miss nothing at all.

A much more successful attempt to create a Silver Age feel yet apply it to Deadpool comes in issue #11, a triple sized issue that is the inevitable Spider-Man issue but comes in a very different form. Rather than a fight or a team-up we get a wonderful time travel story in which Deadpool and Blind Al find themselves thrown through time and arrive in 1967 just in time to take part in the events of Amazing Spider-Man #47. The original issue is reprinted at the end and is a somewhat typical example of the middle period of Stan Lee's run on the title with John Romita's art really coming to the fore in a tale focused on Flash Thompson's leaving party with a gatecrashing by Kraven. But it's also an example of the innocence of the Silver Age comics and the weird slang that can sound utterly incomprehensible at times. And that becomes the beauty of it.

Deadpool and Blind Al find themselves impersonating Peter Parker and Aunt May respectively as they wander through the events of the issue, often drawn into the original comic pages in a Forrest Gump manner. Pete Woods's new art is highly sympathetic to the original, helped by veteran inkers Al Milgrom and Joe Sinnott recreating a classic feel. However the script is mocking in all its glory as Deadpool and Al brings their own sensibilities to it, commenting on the mad slang, the Osborn hair, the sexual undertones to what was originally written as fairly innocent material and so forth. Against all this the fight with Kraven is even more of an afterthought than in the original issue. Overall this is a wonderful contrast of the classic and modern approach with wonderfully biting satire to boot, making for what is easily the best issue in the whole selection.

As a whole this is a series that knows it's allowed to be different and revels in it. There had been anti-hero leads in comic series before but never any quite like Deadpool. His earlier appearances had shown some potential but also a lot of extraneous moments that have to be waded through. But the ongoing series finds a strong niche and runs with it as a comic form of adult sitcom cartoon, sending up the situations and presenting a wacky lead with incredible dialogue and few inhibitions. Based on this selection alone, Joe Kelly is the best Deadpool writer so far, really nailing the character. There are some individual poor issues but there are also some incredible ones, with #11 a contender for one of the absolute best Marvel issues of the 1990s.

So should Deadpool have had an Essential volume? Absolutely! Deadpool is a character who has transcended all other rules so recentism is no problem. There's a lot of material out there - the Classic reprints are already up to volume 14! - and a good cheap bulky volume would be a good primer. The Classics suffer from the first volume having to contain the two limited series so an Essential volume would get deep into the main run.

Yay! Now to time travel once more and sort it out.

Sigh... Oh well, he's someone else's problem now.

What If... Essential Deadpool volume 1? - creator labels

Hi readers! Lots and lots of creators worked on this next set of stories so here's the usual oh so interesting post to squeeze all the labels in. Isn't it exciting?
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