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.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 - creator labels 1

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

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 - creator labels 2

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

Friday, 23 October 2015

What If... Essential Champions volume 1?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Some Avengers previews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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